|President Moon Jae-in is sending a special envoy to Pyongyang this week to revive the stalled US-Korea peace process. His intervention is badly needed. Two months after the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, the momentum for a US-North Korean peace deal has been slowed by Washington's rejection of North Korea's demand to end the war and transform the 1953 armistice into a peace agreement.|
Another factor has been US insistence that US and UN economic sanctions on Pyongyang remain in place until the North gets rid of its nuclear arsenal. The North views that as a violation of the pledges made in Singapore to create a new US-North Korean relationship and build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Citing these issues, President Trump recently cancelled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's upcoming trip to Pyongyang.
But as Moon seeks to kick-start the US-North Korean talks over the objectives of some US hardliners, he is facing a critical rival in his quest for influence in Washington: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his friends in the US media and think tank world. Tim Shorrock reports from Washington.
As concern mounted in Seoul over the breakdown in US-North Korean talks last week, President Trump pushed back against hardliners in his government seeking a more confrontational posture towards Kim Jong Un. In a series of tweets posted on August 29, Trump blamed China and its disagreements with him over trade for the problems with North, and kept the door open for further negotiations.
Speaking in the third person, Trump said "the President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one, and there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games." This was widely seen as a rebuke to advisers demanding that the Pentagon resume joint military exercises with South Korea that were halted after Singapore to jump-start the talks with Kim.
That issue was revived two days earlier by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who told reporters that the Pentagon has "no plans at this time to suspend" next year's exercises. But his statement was widely, and wrongly, interpreted as a pledge to restart them. Trump's tweet brought a swift end to that speculation.
But it also contained a reference to Japan that should be alarming to all Koreans. "The President," he said, "can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea, and Japan, if he so chooses. If he does, they will be far bigger than ever before."
Why would Trump mention Japan in connection with military exercises that have historically been only a function of the US-South Korean military alliance?
The answer: as it did last year, the Abe government has been pushing hard behind the scenes to convince Trump to maintain a tough stance against North Korea. And with its latest military budget, Japan is also signalling that it's ready to join with US military efforts to pressure Kim Jong Un if the current round of talks fail. North Korea still poses an "unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat" to Japan, even after the Trump-Kim summit, the Abe budget states.
In particular, Japan will spend $4.2 billion on an Aegis Ashore missile defense system specifically designed to protect Japan from North Korea. And in recent months, Japanese forces have participated in a lead fashion in large regional military exercises organized by the Pentagon. In late July, for example, Japanese F-15 fighter jets participated in a drill "to enhance joint operations" with two nuclear-capable US B-52 bombers stationed in Guam.
In Washington, Japan's efforts have largely been hidden from the public view. But the fruits of Tokyo's lobbying can be seen in two ways: first, an unusual wave of pro-Japanese articles that have appeared in mainstream media in recent days; and, second, in views promoted by US think tanks that receive major funding from Japan, particularly the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
It's well known in Washington that Abe is Trump's closest ally. The US president "has met with Abe eight times, more than with any other counterpart, and talked to him on the phone 26 times," the Washington Post reported in a lengthy profile on August 28.
But that Post story was highly unusual in the way that it praised Abe. It included details about Abe's relationship with Trump that could only come from access to high-level Japanese officials. The story led with an anecdote from June, when Trump reportedly told Abe in a "tense" meeting that "I remember Pearl Harbor," leaving Abe "exasperated." Also noteworthy was the long string of sympathetic tweets from national security reporter John Hudson, painting Abe as a lone voice for reason with North Korea.
Abe, Hudson reported, has "repeatedly advised Trump not to halt military exercises with South Korea or entertain an agreement to formally end the Korean War until North Korea takes concrete steps to denuclearize." Yet “Abe was completely ignored,” he claimed, quoting "a person close to the Japanese prime minister."
Contrary to Abe's complaints, however, the views of Abe and his military advisers are being taken very seriously in Washington. That was made clear by US journalist Daniel Sneider in a shocking article published by Tokyo Business Today on August 27, the day before the Post report. Titled "Behind the Chaos of Washington's Korea Policy," it reported that a "broad consensus" has been formed in Washington around North and South Korea.
"Interestingly," he added, these hard lines views are "almost completely in sync with the views held by senior Japanese officials."
Except for Trump, Sneider reported, no US officials believe that North Korea will agree to fully verified denuclearization. Second, there is "a deep concern" that the Moon Jae-in government "is no longer bound by the need to move in tight coordination with Washington. Some even fear the alliance itself may be in jeopardy."
The article then quoted a senior US official involved in the Korea talks. “We have a big problem coming with South Korea,” he said in remarks that were quoted extensively in the US media. “It has reached the point where the South Koreans are determined to press ahead. They no longer feel the need to act in parallel with us.”
If these are also Japan's views, Japanese and US national security operatives are both working under the assumption that South Korea is out of line with their shared national security objectives on the peninsula.
As if to underscore the US and Japanese consensus on dealing with North and South Korea, Bloomberg News, which is widely read in the business community, ran another article highly sympathetic to Abe that was framed as a contrast between reliable Japan and an untrustworthy South Korea. It began with this setup.
"One longstanding U.S. ally still thinks North Korea poses an urgent nuclear threat," said Bloomberg. "Another is steadily increasing economic ties with the regime. And Kim Jong Un is doing his best to exploit the divide." As a result, Trump "is confronting an increasingly fractured diplomatic landscape as his two key allies -- Japan and South Korea -- pursue differing ends of his two-pronged North Korea strategy."
Aside from the Japanese diplomats, security officials and fixers whispering in their ears, where does the US media get these ideas? All they have to do is walk into one of many symposiums organized in Washington involving CSIS, particularly when the speaker is Michael Green, CSIS's "Japan Chair."
Green, who was a mid-ranking adviser on North Korea during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, is well-known for having close ties to the Abe government and Japan's Ministry of Defense. As the CSIS Senior Vice President for Asia and its Japan Chair, his purpose at the wealthy think tank is to promote the US-Japan military alliance (the Japan Chair "seeks to define a strategic agenda for the U.S.-Japan relationship by raising consciousness of U.S.-Japan policy issues in a bilateral, regional, and global context," the CSIS website states).
Green's ardent support for the Japanese position was on vivid display at a seminar on the US-South Korean Alliance organized on August 21 by the Brookings Institution. Much of the discussion revolved around Trump's temporary cancellation of US-South Korean military exercises. "The way that was postponed was not good," Green said. "It was done over the objections of the Japanese government." He added that talk of further postponements of the US-Korean exercises is "especially resonating in Japan, where there's a deep concern this may be permanent."
Green's practice of emphasizing Japan's strategic interests above those of Korea's has seeped into the thinking of the mainstream press, particularly the Post, the New York Times and CNN, which quotes the CSIS "Japan Chair" on a regular basis. With Americans like Green doing its bidding in Washington, Abe's government doesn't even need lobbyists.
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