Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#503】Japan, U.S. Should Share Policy on North Korea

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2018.03.22 (Thu)

March 19, 2018

     U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week. It is difficult to predict how the replacement of the chief diplomat would affect the U.S. policy toward North Korea ahead of the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit that could come by May. It is important for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, planning to visit the United States in April, to coordinate a North Korea policy with President Trump.

Tillerson’s dismissal indicates unstable administration
     After President Trump in his first year easily and frequently fired senior administration officials he should have recruited in admitting their capabilities once, Tillerson’s dismissal was not so surprising. Traditionally, however, many of senior administration officials completed their respective services during the four-year term of any president. It is unusual for a president to replace cabinet members and advisers so frequently, indicating an unstable administration.
     Especially the Tillerson dismissal came as the State Department started preparations for the U.S.-North Korea summit on which President Trump made a snap decision. Under the Trump administration, the State Department has been demoralized through substantial spending cuts and restructuring, resulting in personnel outflow and delayed political appointments. As for the Korean Peninsula, the nomination of assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific has yet to get Senate confirmation and the post of U.S. ambassador to South Korea is still vacant. The dismissal of Tillerson has added fuel to the chaos and inflated concerns about U.S. diplomacy.

Pompeo may have “regime change” in mind
     The Trump diplomacy may be taken as representing a conflict between “America First” and international collaboration groups. From the viewpoint of hoping that the United States would continue to play a role as leader of the democratic world, the dismissal of Tillerson, viewed as belonging to the international collaboration group, is regrettable. Tillerson also led the administration to accept Prime Minister Abe’s Indo-Pacific strategy and backed up the enhancement of quadrilateral Japan-U.S.-Australia-India cooperation to which Abe has given weight. In this sense, Japan has lost one of U.S. sympathizers.
     However, given that Central Intelligence Agency Director and former Congressman Mike Pompeo, newly nominated as secretary of state, has once indicated he might support a regime change in Pyongyang if diplomatic means fail to lead the Kim Jong Un regime to dismantle its nuclear program, Pompeo seen as a hard-liner against North Korea, rather Tillerson putting emphasis on dialogue with Pyongyang, may have a chemistry with Japan as far as the North Korea policy is concerned.
     What Japan should do before the U.S.-North Korea summit is to urge the Trump administration to keep pressure on North Korea until Pyongyang takes specific, verifiable denuclearization measures. This is the job for Prime Minister Abe planning to hold talks with Trump next month. It is also important for Japan to prevent North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens from being shelved amid possible progress in the U.S.-North Korea relations. Foreign Minister Taro Kono for his part should promptly intensify his communication with his counterpart, Pompeo.

Yasushi Tomiyama is Senior Fellow and Planning Committee Member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.