Japanese coverage of the diplomacy between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un as well as the broader spectrum of international relations over North Korea has been intensive over the first months of 2019. Assessments of what to expect and then what really happened involve interpretations of North Korean intentions, the character of U.S. diplomacy, the role of South Korean diplomacy, the impact of China, and the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia. Each development over this period has been scrutinized closely, often with an addendum: What does it mean for Japan? The fate of North Korea looms very large for a nation fearful of a missile attack from it, cognizant of the absence of any settlement after 1945 of its claims against Japan’s occupational conduct, and nervous about the regional balance of power and U.S. trustworthiness as an ally and nuclear umbrella, when the United States itself is quickly coming under threat from the North’s nuclear weapons. Below, the views on the political right range from Sankei Shimbun to the establishmentoriented Yomiuri Shimbun, and on the political left from Asahi Shimbun to Tokyo Shimbun. While editorials figure heavily into the analysis, much of the regular news coverage also serves to differentiate Japanese sources.
What negative outcomes does Japan fear from the success or failure of ongoing diplomacy over North Korea? In recent coverage we can identify at least eight worrisome outcomes: 1) failure of the talks resulting in a war scare beyond what occurred in 2017; 2) suspension of U.S.-DPRK talks and China as well as Russia breaking with the UN sanctions regime, fueling prospects of three-way coordination with China taking the lead; 3) discord about how to proceed with damaging U.S.-ROK relations, weakening the U.S. military presence in South Korea at a cost to Japan’s defense; 4) South Korea splitting with the U.S. on the North and raising the specter of inter-Korean nationalism deemed hostile to Japan; 5) success of the talks based on “America First,” agreeing to a deal on denuclearization (as a process) that leaves Japan’s concerns about missiles and abductees aside, isolating Japan; 6) success of the talks leading toward reunification, also strengthening national identity versus Japan; 7) a new geopolitical framework replacing the talks, as the U.S. retreats from the region; and 8) a period of instability, where Trump only delays making decisions and Japan is left frustrated.
Four general responses to the Hanoi Summit and its early aftermath could be discerned in Japanese publications: 1) Trump outfoxed Kim, has a strategy reassuring to Japan, and the outcome in sight is positive; 2) Trump erred in his diplomacy but has been brought to his senses and now will follow a course welcome in Japan, however uncertain the outcome; 3) the situation is growing more dangerous, Trump does not know what to do, and Japan has to keep its eyes on the other players; and 4) Trump will renew diplomacy, keeping Japan off balance in coordinating with the U.S. as Japan struggles with its isolation in this diplomacy.
When anticipating what should come next, sources understandably suggest what their own government should do. Many in Japan emphasize the abductions issue and willingness to offer economic assistance when that along with denuclearization and missiles is addressed. One can discern how Abe Shinzo should proceed in diplomacy with each of the leaders active in the region. Of course, most attention centers on how he should deal with Trump or the alliance.