Many people in Japan were worried when Donald Trump walked out of the recent meeting in Hanoi with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un.
Previously, the two leaders had threatened to start a war – an unimaginable horror for Japan. Yet peace is still holding and the experts I’ve met say the summit may have a silver lining.
Professor Hyun Bang Shin from the London School of Economics told me: “The Hanoi summit was a failure only if you approach it from the point of view that success means an agreement signed by the two leaders.
“That obviously didn’t happen but I think this meeting will turn out to be one of many stops along the road towards the eventual goal, which is a positive outcome for all the parties involved, including South Korea, North Korea and the US.”
Professor Shin told me that after the Hanoi summit, North Korea’s propaganda did not angrily denounced the US, as it has often done in the past. This eaves the way open further talks, with South Korea as mediator.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to join the negotiations. He demands verifiable checks on claims of disarmament and also hopes to raise the issue of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
Professor Takako Hikotani from Columbia University told me: “Japan is being left out of the loop in the current negotiations because North Korea wants to talk directly to the United States. As a result, Japan’s fate rests with how well things go between Trump and Kim.”
She is pleased that the leaders didn’t make a deal focussed on North Korea’s intercontinental missiles, which target the US, at the risk of overlooking the threat posed to Japan by medium-range rockets. In the end, the US showed no compromise on either front.
For decades, South Korea, Japan and the United States have formed a security triangle, focussed on containing the North Korean threat. However, the US and South Korea recently scaled back their joint military exercises. There is also tension because of a poor diplomatic relationship between South Korea and Japan.
There is angry rhetoric from South Korea about Japan’s occupation in the last century. Japan’s government has responded by firmly stating that no more apologies are required.
Professor Hikotani says. “Of course, there are often ups and downs in the relationship but normally there is a way to seperate the political disputes from the issue of military cooperation.”
Professor Shin says: “Japan has been ruled by the same political elite since the end of the Second World War, while South Korea has democratised. It seems as though they are unable to adjust to the new geopolitical order.”
Professor Shin notes that there is strong resistance within Korea to Prime Minister Abe’s plan to change Japan’s constitution, so that its armed forces can fight abroad. But he says: “If there is any kind of war on the peninsula there would be complete annihilation of both countries and South Korea – not Japan – is the most vulnerable place.”