Japan’s Nuclear Hawks Could Block US-North Korean Agreement on Denuclearization

April 22, 2018
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Momentum has been building for a productive meeting between President Trump and Kim Jung-un that could lead to an agreement on North Korean denuclearization. But after speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump warned the world that he might cancel or walk out of the meeting if “it is not going to be fruitful.”

US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands at a press conference concluding two days of talks.

What did Mr. Abe tell Mr. Trump that precipitated the warning?  The prime minister may have reminded the president that his Nuclear Posture Review, which the Japanese Foreign Ministry strongly endorsed, included US promises to increase the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia. The ministry could be trying to prevent any weakening of those promises from becoming part of an agreement with North Korea on denuclearization.

Defining Denuclearization

US and foreign observers have disagreed about the meaning of the term. But North Korea has made it clear that it considers denuclearization a mutual responsibility. The United States has acknowledged reciprocal denuclearization obligations in the past, but they were limited to the Korean land mass.

US negotiators should be aware that North Korean conditions for a credible security guarantee may include a slightly broader definition of US denuclearization obligations and some additional US relaxation of its nuclear posture in Asia. In July 2016 Pyongyang stated that denuclearization means “denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula and this includes the dismantlement of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity.”

This would not be an unreasonable request. Nuclear-capable US aircraft and submarines patrolling in the region are just as threatening to North Korea as US nuclear weapons stationed on the peninsula itself. The United States has used displays of regional nuclear capabilities, such as nuclear-capable bombers deployed to Guam, to threaten North Korea in the past. North Korean threats to attack Guam with medium range missiles were a response to those displays, and a prominent part of the tense fall run-up to this spring’s negotiations.

If North Korea were to ask for a broadening of reciprocal US obligations to denuclearize the region as a condition for relinquishing its nuclear capabilities, the United States may have to walk back some aspects of the extended nuclear deterrence commitments it made to Japan during the Obama administration and cancel plans to further enhance those commitments—plans included in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

Japanese Nuclear Preferences

On 25 February 2009 Minister Takeo Akiba, who headed the political section of Japan’s embassy in Washington, presented a document to a US congressional commission stating President Obama assured Prime Minister Aso, at a meeting in Washington the day before, that the United States would honor the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s request to make nuclear deterrence “the core of Japan–US security arrangements.” The document contained a list of US nuclear weapons capabilities the ministry believed were needed to make that assurance credible.

The list included US nuclear weapons that could be deployed in the region, including nuclear-capable cruise missiles on US attack submarines that patrol in Asia and nuclear-capable aircraft on the island of Guam. A conversation about the list between Mr. Akiba and commission co-chair James Schlesinger included consideration of deploying US nuclear weapons on US military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Mr. Akiba, who is now Japan’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, explained that domestic political conditions in Japan made deployment in Okinawa problematic. But he also noted that there is a constituency within Japan’s Foreign Ministry that supports deployment and he appeared to agree to construct storage facilities for US nuclear weapons in Okinawa in anticipation of eventual deployment when political conditions in Japan change.

The Obama administration permanently retired the nuclear-capable cruise missile the United States once deployed on US attack submarines patrolling in Asia. US President George H.W. Bush removed them from service in 1992. But Obama reportedly agreed to compensate for the loss of this capability by making US nuclear weapons available for deployment in Asia aboard dual-capable aircraft. The Trump administration, noting the importance of the capability to deploy US nuclear weapons in Asia, plans to build a new submarine-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile to replace the one his predecessors removed from service and retired.

Reciprocal Verification

The United States expects North Korea to agree to verifiable measures to halt the development of new nuclear weapons, eliminate its existing nuclear weapons and dismantle its ability to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program in the future. It is only reasonable to expect that North Korea would require credible assurances that the United States will not introduce or threaten to introduce US nuclear weapons into the region in the future.

The United States could agree to such a request without diminishing its ability to provide extended nuclear deterrence to its Asian allies with its strategic nuclear forces, which do not need to enter the region to be effective. But it would have to forgo whatever psychological advantages it presumes to obtain by maintaining the ability and expressing the will to deploy US tactical nuclear weapons in Asia if deemed necessary.

South Korea seems to be prepared to make this concession in the interest of avoiding a war with the North. But Trump’s unexpected threat to cancel or walk out of a summit meeting with Kim Jung-un, announced while standing next to Japan’s prime minister after two days of meetings, suggests Abe may have told the US president that exchanging the option to deploy US tactical nuclear weapons in Asia for a deal on denuclearization with North Korea would not be “fruitful.”

Posted in: Japan, Nuclear Weapons

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security.