October 16, 2020 | Insight

Prime Minister Suga Must Reassess His Priorities for the Korean Peninsula

October 16, 2020 | Insight

Prime Minister Suga Must Reassess His Priorities for the Korean Peninsula

New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga refused to attend an annual trilateral summit with the leaders of China and South Korea until Seoul meets Tokyo’s demands regarding a disputed court case over compensation for wartime labor. Press reporting suggests Tokyo had no objection to Beijing’s presence; the Japanese leader simply opposes any meeting with his South Korean counterpart. Only weeks earlier, however, Suga extended an unconditional summit offer to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in an effort to reduce tensions and work toward a long-term solution to the nuclear crisis.

However, engaging the North while feuding with the South will undermine Japan’s strategic position vis-a-vis North Korea. Since 2018, South Korean-Japanese relations have rapidly declined following a South Korean Supreme Court ruling requiring several Japanese companies to pay reparations to 11 elderly South Korean victims of forced labor during World War II. This dispute led to retaliatory trade measures and the near dissolution of a critical bilateral military intelligence sharing agreement. Public opinion polls show that negative perceptions between the South Korean and Japanese publics are at an all-time high.

Increasing tensions with South Korea will undermine prospects for deepening Japan’s security cooperation with the United States and South Korea, which is critical for deterring North Korean as well as Chinese aggression.

Suga should therefore reset Japan’s policy to prioritize cooperation with South Korea. Although this task may seem difficult considering the tense nature of Tokyo-Seoul relations, Suga should help the two countries return to a “two-track” diplomatic framework to disconnect discussions of bilateral security and economic issues from those regarding historic grievances.

Unfortunately, Suga seems to be intent on continuing his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s attempts to meet with Kim. During his September 25 speech at the 75th UN General Assembly, Suga made an unconditional offer for a Japan-North Korea summit to establish “constructive relations between Japan and North Korea” while also working to advance “regional peace and stability.” However, the Japanese government still maintains certain conditions for Japanese economic assistance to North Korea as part of any potential agreement.

Tokyo is interested in holding its own bilateral summit with Kim because it fears Japan’s lack of direct dialogue with Pyongyang gives Tokyo no opportunity to voice its main concerns. These include North Korea’s prospective return of Japanese abductees as well as Pyongyang’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Japan. Thus far, Japan has relied on the Trump administration to relay Tokyo’s interests to North Korea during the two U.S.-North Korea summits. Yet Japan is increasingly skeptical of President Donald Trump’s understanding of its concerns thanks to his persistent downplaying of North Korea’s improving short-range missile capability.

Even if North Korea agreed to a summit with Japan, there is no guarantee Tokyo will achieve any of its goals regarding abductees or short-range missiles. North Korea has consistently exploited diplomacy to extort concessions from its adversaries while giving up nothing in return. From the 1992 Joint Declaration to the 2018 Joint Statement in Singapore, the North Korean regime has signed onto various commitments to dismantle its weapons, only to cheat on the deals afterward.

For instance, during the first U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore in 2018, Trump unexpectedly cancelled two U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to dismantle its Sohae missile development facility. This sudden cancellation marked the first of many delays, downgrades, and suspensions of several U.S.-South Korean military exercises, undermining the alliance’s overall combat readiness. Yet North Korea failed to reciprocate Washington’s offer and instead expanded the Sohae missile facility. Pyongyang also continued its military’s seasonal training cycles and testing of short-range missiles that pose an immediate threat to Japan as well as South Korea.

Diplomacy with North Korea will be productive only once the Kim regime has made the strategic choice to denuclearize. The Kim regime’s recent ostentatious military parade showcasing a vast array of weapons, including a new intercontinental ballistic missile, shows that Pyongyang’s leadership is not ready to surrender these capabilities. Without an alteration of the regime’s strategic calculus, negotiations with North Korea would not achieve denuclearization.

The most effective, yet also perhaps most challenging, way for Japan to pressure Pyongyang is by repairing relations with South Korea. North Korea has benefitted from the ongoing deterioration of South Korean-Japanese relations, because it weakens the U.S. military’s relationships in the region. Specifically, forward-deployed American forces in Japan and on the Korean peninsula could benefit from greater interoperability and integration. Yet the divisions among U.S. allies create unnecessary obstructions that prevent the U.S., South Korean, and Japanese militaries from realizing the full benefits of cooperation.

Suga can start improving relations by offering a summit with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in without any preconditions, as he did with Kim. Also, Suga’s administration should temporarily forgo its persistent demand that Seoul concede on its Supreme Court case against the Japanese companies, and respect both the rule of law in South Korea and the fact that the president cannot overturn a court decision. Although this will require the Suga administration to sacrifice political capital and risk domestic backlash, a bold departure from his government’s earlier policy stances could help Suga put Japan in the best position to help induce change in North Korea. This is because temporarily overlooking this dispute will enable Tokyo to signal to Seoul that it reaffirms the aforementioned two-track diplomatic approach.

If this proposed summit generates momentum, Tokyo and Seoul should create a working-level dialogue process between their foreign affairs and defense ministries to continue discussions regarding future areas of security cooperation and, more importantly, crisis prevention.

Dr. Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, formerly the senior director for Asia at the U.S. National Security Council, has argued that the two governments should rely not just on their leaders to resolve this diplomatic impasse, but rather on bureaucrats to “buy a bit more time and lower the temperature.” Until now, the two U.S. allies have generally relied on a top-down diplomatic approach revolving around ministerial- or presidential-level meetings held only in times of crisis or convenience.

Establishing a working-level process involving mid-ranking defense and foreign ministry officials could help Seoul and Tokyo hold regular dialogues on bilateral issues. History has shown that working-level diplomatic mechanisms such as the Trilateral Coordination Oversight Group, which brought together Japan, South Korea, and the United States, have helped these nations appreciate the extent of their shared security interests and prevent the escalation of Tokyo and Seoul’s frequent bilateral disputes.

These proposed measures alone will not serve as a panacea for South Korea and Japan’s strained relationship. Nonetheless, Tokyo’s offer of an olive branch to Seoul could provide immediate opportunities to manage the problem and mitigate future damage. Implementing a robust working-level process could help these two governments adhere to the envisioned two-track diplomatic framework to maintain critical security cooperation that helps deter North Korea. By doing so, Suga will put not just Japan but also South Korea and the United States in a much more advantageous position to resolve the challenges that North Korea presents.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Mat and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea