Saturday, June 15, 2019

Japan's Adrift Peace Diplomacy

And Observations on Peace with North Korea

BY Dan Sneider, Stanford University and APP member 

First appeared in the TOKYO REPORT for the JUNE 14, 2019 NELSON REPORT

Even if Prime Minister Abe had not been in Tehran when it happened, the attack on a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf would have riveted Japanese attention. As everyone knows, the vast bulk of Japanese energy supplies pass through that chokehold, a reality that has driven Japanese foreign policy in the region and globally since the days of the first oil crisis. Japan is a long-time practitioner of what the Tanaka cabinet called "resource diplomacy." That diplomacy has at times put Japan at odds with the U.S. and compelled Japan to seek to protect its own national interest in ensuring a steady supply of energy from the Gulf. Even when Japan is doing this, it seeks to avoid tensions with its only ally in Washington, or at least to downplay any visible gap in the positions of the two countries.

This delicate game was evident in the preparations for Abe's trip to Tehran this week. Japanese officials went out of their way to present this as a mission blessed, if not encouraged, by the Trump administration and by the President personally. They got Trump to sign off on it when he visited Japan and they carried a message of sorts to Teheran about negotiations and, as officials in Tokyo spun it, even a plea to release American hostages. In the readout of the meeting between Abe and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, provided by the Japanese government to their media, Abe supposedly told the Iranian leader that "the U.S. is ready to negotiate with Iran sincerely" and that "Negotiations with the U.S. will lead to Iran's development" and that "President Trump does not seek regime change in Iran." All talking points from Washington, dutifully conveyed, if less than true.

In reality, Abe's trip was motivated by the growing fear in Tokyo of an escalating series of events leading to conflict that would embroil the region. As Abe also told the Iranian leader, "No one wants a military clash. I am concerned about the escalating tensions." (For reference on how such an escalation might look, I strongly recommend readers go back to the very important scenario painted by former Obama official Colin Kahl in "This is how easily the U.S. and Iran could blunder into war" (Washington Post, May 23, 2019) one that senior officials in the intelligence community found highly credible.

Events later that day proved him right. The Trump administration immediately pointed fingers at Iran. Pompeo took it a step further and portrayed this as a deliberate act aimed at 'insulting Japan.' There are some in Tokyo, notably the hardline right represented by the Sankei Shimbun, who have immediately embraced this narrative. But that does not seem to be the view of most Japanese policy makers, or the public, so far.

Japanese do not link the tanker attack directly to Abe's visit, a senior Japanese journalist with long experience reporting in both the Middle East and Washington, told me last night. For now, the public has no basis to make that judgment he said, and as to the attack, "we don't know who did this."

Questions about the credibility of the accounts offered by U.S. military and administration officials are voiced in the U.S. but also in Japan. The owner of the Japanese tanker held a press conference in Tokyo Friday and cited reports from the crew to say that rather than a mine being fixed to the hull by Iranian gunboats, as the U.S. Central Command claimed, some kind of projectile was fired, twice, at the vessel. He also rejected the idea that it was a torpedo, a rumor circulated in some accounts, though his version did not answer the key issue of who was responsible for these attacks (New York Times account of the Tokyo press conference).

Abe himself delicately dodged this question today, briefing reporters on his 30-minute phone conversation with Trump about his trip. "I resolutely denounce the attacks, no matter who mounted them," he said. Abe also told Trump that he had conveyed his messages to the Iranians and recounted Khamenei's response, including his pledge not to make, possess or use nuclear weapons. And he very carefully warned both sides not to escalate:

"I believe that all parties concerned should exercise restraint to prevent from causing unforeseen situations and refrain from any action that could escalate tensions," Abe told reporters, according to Kyodo News service.

Japanese with long experience in the Middle East and in Japanese foreign policy reject the idea that this trip was some ill-conceived venture that foundered and should now be abandoned.

"I am very happy that Mr. Abe went to Tehran," a former senior Japanese foreign policy official who has had extensive contact with Iran over the last two decades or more told me early today. The former official praised Iranian President Rouhani, whom he first met long ago - -"he was very impressive, demonstrating a sense of balance which is rare with most Western leaders." In the view of this Japanese policymaker, Trump and the U.S. are attempting to "cut off the knees of Rouhani" in order to engineer the coming to power of a hardliner, as happened when former President Khatami was replaced by Ahmadinejad, thus setting the stage for conflict with Iran.

In the view of this, and other, Japanese foreign policymakers, Abe could not turn away the Iranian request to try to intervene to promote a return to dialogue and the restoration of the nuclear agreement (and an end to sanctions). "There is no other way out of this quagmire," he told me, while acknowledging that "Abe's room for maneuver is very limited." Khamenei only repeated what he has been saying since 2003 - -that Iran has no intention to manufacture or use nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, the Japanese former official told me, Pompeo's 12-point demand "is unrealistic, tantamount to a demand for a complete surrender. Of course, Abe could not take sides with such an American fundamentalist approach." To be fair, Secretary Pompeo earlier this month said the U.S. would negotiate without preconditions, though he did not repudiate those earlier demands.

Abe's attempt to extract some expression of interest in dialogue with Washington out of Khamenei failed for now, the former official said. But he should continue to press the U.S. to show some flexibility and persuade Tehran to reciprocate. "Since Abe has started this process, he should continue to follow this track, not just making one separate visit to Iran but encouraging the reconciliation process," he concluded.

This may strike many as hopelessly naïve, especially at this point. And it may be that Abe will retreat from this role quickly in response to American pressure. But it is significant, and this goes well beyond Abe personally, that senior Japanese policymakers are not buying into the escalatory rhetoric from Washington. They have a sober understanding of what it is at stake.

One Year after the Singapore Summit: Still in the Freeze 

Watching the events unfolding in the Persian Gulf makes it even more relevant to look at what passes for success in the foreign policy of the Trump administration - dealing with North Korea, a country that is a significant step ahead of Iran in the nuclear weapons race.

As we hit the first anniversary of the Singapore Summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the diplomacy between the two countries remains completely stalemated. The impasse that was evident at the Hanoi Summit in late February is unchanged. There have been no substantive talks of any kind, on any level, and contact had been confined to the passage of messages through the usual channels maintained by the intelligence services of North and South Korea and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

This week, however, Trump revealed that he had received yet another "very warm, very nice letter" from Kim, prompting renewed talk of the possibility of a third summit. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose desperation to restart talks is obvious, immediately jumped in to reveal that he had seen the letter, suggesting it was transmitted via Seoul, and that it contained an "interesting part." Moon is trying yet again to be a mediator in restarting negotiations, pushing for a Kim visit to Seoul this month, ahead of a scheduled Trump visit to Seoul following the G-20 meeting in Osaka at the end of the month.

Most analysts remain deeply skeptical that this bloom of hopeful talk will lead to a new summit meeting, though no one wants to rule it out given the unpredictability of both leaders. Trump himself did not encourage this idea. He told reporters on Wednesday that he was fine with the status quo--a de facto freeze on nuclear and long-range missile testing, a dampening of war talk, and a claim of the victory of his personal diplomacy. "I'm in no rush," he said.

That may not be the case for either Kim or Moon. The North Koreans continue to signal that they are growing impatient with a status quo in which, in their view, they gave Trump bragging rights for successful diplomacy while they fail to get what they want--a lifting of the economic sanctions that continue to put significant pressure on the internal dynamics of North Korea.

To understand this reality, I recommend readers run out and buy a copy of the Washington Post's Anna Fifield's masterful new book on North Korea, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un. In tremendous detail, Fifield provides an account of a regime that is sitting atop a populace already exposed to a spread of marketization and of information about the outside world. Kim faces a populace that is increasingly restive and seeking change which cannot be delivered without opening up the economy.

The North Korean regime, as is its style, has not concealed its unhappiness over this impasse. In the latest expression of this view, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement last week (June 4) warning that "the fate of the June 12 DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement will not be promising if the U.S. fails to carry out its obligation and keeps resorting to anti-DPRK hostile policy." The Americans must act "before it is too late," the official statement said, which for North Korea means accepting the limited denuclearization for sanctions lifting deal they put on the table in Hanoi. "There is a limit to our patience."

The Moon administration seems to share that sense of urgency. For Moon this is not only a question of domestic politics but also a deep-seated belief that the window of opportunity to achieve their dream of North-South engagement on the road to unification is closing fast. Within South Korea, the conservatives who have been largely silenced are increasingly vocal and harshly critical of what they see as hopeless naivete on the part of Moon.

As the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo opined yesterday (June 13, 2019):
When the Singapore summit took place a year ago, we expected the nuclear shadow-which has been hanging over the Korean Peninsula for a quarter of a century-to be lifted.....Since then, however, the DPRK has not taken even a single step toward the substantially dismantling its nuclear arsenal. Instead, it has continued to increase the production of nuclear materials and weapons. If there is anything we can call an 'outcome' [from the summit], it is the certainty that Kim Jong Un's willingness to denuclearize is fake....Only a fool would believe Kim is willing to give up his nuclear program, especially considering that after six nuclear tests and the successful launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles, he has already declared country's nuclearization complete.
It doesn't help that the North Korean regime is openly disdainful of the entreaties for engagement these days from Seoul. The death of Sunshine Policy founder Kim Dae Jung's wife, which should have prompted the dispatch of a delegation to her funeral, brought only a wreath and a letter delivered by Kim Jong Un's sister to Panmunjon. The liaison office set up with great fanfare is effectively not functional. Offers of aid for North Korea's claimed food crisis are rudely dismissed.

Where then are things heading? Can a third summit really take place in this environment? I sought the views of two well-known analysts of the Korean peninsula--former State Department senior official, and veteran of the 6-party talks and many engagements with North Korea, David Straub and Van Jackson, of Wellington University in New Zealand and author of a terrific book on the recent negotiations, On the Brink: Trump, Kim and the Threat of Nuclear War. Here is what they told me, worth reading carefully:

DAVID STRAUB: Trying to predict whether there will be a third U.S.-North Korean summit is a mug's game, because so much depends on what a profoundly ignorant, unscrupulous, and impulsive American president might do. No preceding American president was willing to meet the North Korean leader unless a major deal was prepared in advance. Trump has already met Kim Jong Un twice without even a shared understanding of on the definition of "denuclearization." So, Trump might meet Kim again, or he might not. And if he meets Kim, he might overrule his own advisers and accept a terrible "deal." Or maybe, as at the second summit, he might get cold feet and again walk away.

One thing is crystal clear: Kim Jong Un has not suddenly decided to give up all his nuclear weapons. And unless there is a clear prospect that a partial North Korean nuclear deal will proceed to complete denuclearization in a reasonable period of time, a partial deal would be a terrible deal for American, South Korean, and Japanese interests. It would allow North Korea to have its cake and eat it, too. It would allow North Korea to break out of the deal any time in the future it felt it convenient to do so. It would further undermine the sanctions regime against North Korea and further encourage the regime in its current course, while undermining U.S. credibility with both friends and foes.

Meanwhile, the South Korean president continues to push his version of the Sunshine Policy with incredible doggedness and incredible naivete. KBS TV, now dominated by Moon's people, devoted the first three segments of its main evening news program on June 13 to playing up the prospects for another inter-Korean summit and a possible breakthrough between the U.S. and North Korea on the nuclear deal. President Moon was shown saying that, as President Trump had indicated, there was a "very interesting" element in Kim's recent letter to Trump. Moon said it was still possible for him to meet with Kim before Trump visits South Korea at the end of the month and he expressed his great interest in doing so. KBS correspondents suggested that something was "clearly" in the works. KBS TV also suggested that the US should or might move to arrange meetings of divided families in North Korea and the U.S., and speculated that such ostensibly humanitarian moves might break the nuclear logjam between Washington and Pyongyang, just as Moon's people have been trying to use food aid to North Korea to get movement again on broader inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean issues.

VAN JACKSON: There's no reason for a third summit. A third summit would prove that this administration and this president aren't capable of learning...but that doesn't mean there won't be one. Who would it benefit? Kim Jong Un, maybe Moon a little, and maybe Trump personally depending on the media narrative.

But it would be all downside for the U.S., for Japan, for South Korean conservatives, and for rational foreign policy. The US bureaucracy and Trump's team show no sign of budging off of FFVD/denuclearization, and there's no point of trying to negotiate with North Korea if that's the goal we promote for ourselves.

North Korea has no incentive to enter a REAL diplomatic process where we try and maneuver them into the denuclearization position they've spent the last 60 years trying to avoid. What I'm seeing from North Korean statements the last couple months is a belief that they're in a position of bargaining strength--because Kim believes the summits are something he earned through successful missile testing, not something brought about by maximum pressure--and their goal is sanctions relief with minimal reductions in the number of warheads, missiles, or fissile material it has, and minimal transparency. That's it.

Summits are Kim's only cost-free path to sanctions relief. North Korea keeps making allusions to ending the current de facto freeze on testing...and of course its program has continued this entire time. Those are signs that North Korea believes coercion, not capitulation, is the most effective way to get what it wants (surprise surprise). As a step 1, or even step zero, we need to establish an actual monitored freeze of its entire program for the sake of damage control. The status quo benefits North Korea strategically.

Everything about the situation is fixed, certain, and the conflict of interest is entrenched...except for the possibility that Trump decides something irresponsible in the name of ego. To the extent the situation with North Korea is malleable, it's malleable in a way that's basically all downside for the U.S.

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