President Donald Trump’s historic decision to meet Kim Jong-un to address the North Korea nuclear crisis brings with it opportunities for a peaceful resolution as well as risks. Among the many priorities involving this summit, President Trump must safeguard the interests of US allies while striving for verifiable North Korean disarmament.
Protecting the security interests of Seoul and Tokyo during the summit is critical for continuing America’s role of maintaining stability in East Asia as it has done since the Korean War. It is also imperative for upholding Washington’s credibility in the region.
For over six decades the United States has helped provide for the security of East Asia and prevent another war on the Korean Peninsula through a combination of alliances, containment, deterrence, sanctions and geopolitical support of its regional allies. In this spirit, any deal that Trump strikes with Kim needs to avoid putting Seoul and Tokyo in vulnerable positions.
In part, the differences in outlook that Seoul and Tokyo have with Washington relate to geography. Both Seoul and Tokyo are concerned that Trump may be inclined to strike a deal with Kim that ends Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile program -- thereby protecting the US and its territories -- but keeps intact other shorter range missile programs that are capable of striking Seoul and Tokyo.
It bears saying that the shorter range missile threat is not confined to solely South Korean and Japanese nationals. Both countries are home to hundreds of thousands of US citizens who are also vulnerable.
Seoul and Tokyo are also, understandably, wondering what Trump is willing to give up in exchange for North Korea putting a freeze on its nuclear and missile tests.
To address these worries, Trump’s team would be well-advised to review thoroughly with South Korean and Japanese policymakers the wide range of their concerns and core interests before the summit. Consultations with Beijing to determine its red lines are also crucial.
In a welcome first step, Trump will host Abe ahead of the US-North Korea summit at Mar-a-Lago to discuss Japan’s concerns relating to both security and the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea in past decades.
For his part, South Korean President Moon Jae-in will hold an April 27 summit with Kim.
Clearly, Trump’s departure from traditional multilateral talks regarding the Korean Peninsula, while presenting opportunities, has left regional allies apprehensive. This has in part led to the Moon-Kim summit and talks of an Abe-Kim summit, raising prospects for disjointed diplomacy. It also provides Kim with opportunities to drive wedges between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
To guard against this, part of Trump’s upcoming diplomacy needs to include assurances to South Korea and Japan that their interests will not be thrown by the wayside during his talks with Kim.
Ted Gover is an instructor of political science at Central Texas College, USMC Camp Pendleton. -- Ed.