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US President Donald Trump and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe take part in a ceremony to feed carp before their talks in Tokyo on November 6, 2017. Photo: Reuters

As Donald Trump opens up to North Korea, will he leave Japan out in the dark?

Shin Kawashima says the planned summit between the American and North Korean leaders may mean big changes for all the surrounding players, but Tokyo in particular stands to lose out if they strike a deal that leaves Pyongyang still able to threaten Japan

North Korea
News of top-level talks between the United States and North Korea, to be held as early as May, has swept the world. The subject of the talks will still be denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, unchanged from the direction pursued in the six-party talks of the 2000s. However, in light of the criticism President Donald Trump has levelled at Kim Jong-un, it should be seen as a rapid development.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, welcomed the development, remarking that he had begun to see the “light at the end of the tunnel”. Clearly , South Korea has paved the way for these high-level talks. At the Pyeongchang Olympics, the Moon Jae-in administration substantiated its policy of goodwill towards the North and racked up a series of accomplishments in quick succession, securing the participation of the North Korean team in the Olympics, welcoming a North Korean delegation and forming a combined team representing the two Koreas. Against this backdrop, the US and South Korea delayed their joint military exercises, while North Korea refrained from carrying out any new nuclear or missile tests for the duration of the Olympics. China has long petitioned for the US and South Korea to abandon joint military exercises, and it probably believes that the top-level talks were achieved thanks to the basic path it laid out. Considering this, China has no need to see the talks in a negative light. Beijing should also welcome the prospect of North Korea halting nuclear weapons and missile testing in the lead-up to the summit.
From a US perspective, North Korea’s compromise may be seen as evidence that the sanctions imposed were significant. By monitoring crude oil transactions conducted in international waters and imposing sanctions on Chinese companies dealing with North Korea, the US has clearly ratcheted up the pressure.

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Japan, as a member of the framework for six-party talks, was not necessarily a party to the latest process of negotiations, and it appears that there were no prior arrangements between Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who have maintained close relations. For its part, Japan should have no reason to oppose the development. That said, it may be wary of the fact that the talks were arranged at the initiative of Washington and Seoul. In fact, it is possible that even China is somewhat wary of the upcoming talks. If Moon, of the “democratic” South Korea, manages to gain the initiative on North Korean issues, then China, host of the six-party talks, may lose its status as the country with the greatest influence over North Korea.
A woman in Tokyo walks past a public TV screen showing photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on March 7. The Trump-Kim summit in May is to be preceded by a meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas a month prior, and Japan, wary of North Korea’s threats and its capabilities, will be watching both summits closely. Photo: AP

North Korea: fearing diplomatic sidelines, Japan explores possible meeting between Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong-un

Of course, Korea experts do not expect a dramatic change in circumstances as a result of the top-level talks. The majority probably see this development as a single move in a long process of negotiations and exchanges. But the possibility that the Trump administration could reach a “deal” with North Korea on the banning of long-range missile development to remove the threat to the US is not out of the question. Nuclear warheads will not reach the US mainland on short- or intermediate-range missiles. If that is the sort of deal Trump works out, then the US relationship with Japan, which is in range of those short- and intermediate-range missiles, may slip into darkness.

Shin Kawashima is professor for international relations in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo