- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2018

President Trump should demand that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meet a hard deadline of 2020 to permanently surrender his nuclear programs and that no sanctions relief for Pyongyang should be granted until the deadline is met, a top policy aide to Japanese President Shinzo Abe said Wednesday.

Katsuyuki Kawai, the special adviser for foreign affairs to Mr. Abe from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said the Japanese president pressed Mr. Trump during their meeting in Florida last week to realize “America is in a stronger position than Chairman Kim” and that North Korean denuclearization has to occur before Mr. Trump faces a potentially difficult re-election campaign in just two years.

The hard-line advice also reflects rising fears in Tokyo that fast-moving diplomacy involving Mr. Kim, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Mr. Trump could leave some of Japan’s priorities off the agenda, including the future of the North’s formidable non-nuclear military arsenal.

Mr. Trump, “who previously had no experience dealing with North Korea, has often asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for advice,” Mr. Kawai told a private audience in Washington.

He said Mr. Abe sought to impress upon the president at Mar-a-Lago that “the United States should lead the terms for resolving the crisis.”

What remains to be seen is whether Mr. Moon, whom Japan fears has seized the initiative in the delicate dance over direct negotiations with Pyongyang, will throw his own weight behind a 2020 deadline for so-called CVID — complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement — of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Mr. Moon has said publicly that total disarmament is the goal but privately suggested it may take much longer than two years to achieve.

The issue hangs heavily over a summit slated for Friday between the South Korean president and Mr. Kim, the outcome of which, all sides agree, will set the tone and trajectory of a proposed Trump-Kim face-to-face meeting to follow later this spring.

Skeptics fear Mr. Kim is employing a classic North Korean approach of drawing its adversaries into prolonged talks while it secures badly needed economic aid, and many in Washington are concerned about Mr. Moon’s posture toward the situation.

Where Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe may desire an “all-or-nothing deal” with the Kim regime that can be reached quickly, South Korean sources say Mr. Moon wants a slower approach — one that has denuclearization as a goal to be achieved down the road.

Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim hold their high-stakes meeting Friday in a village along the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. The outcome of that one-day summit, all sides agree, will set the tone and trajectory of a proposed Trump-Kim face-to-face meeting to follow later this spring.

One senior South Korean official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with The Washington Times in Seoul recently, said Mr. Moon’s advisers are confident that they have persuaded the Trump administration to go along with a “very gradual approach that will eventually lead to reaching our collective goal of denuclearization.”

Japanese officials warn against such thinking.

Mr. Kawai said Wednesday that Mr. Abe may be the only world leader who can speak frankly and in a truly informed way with Mr. Trump “about North Korea’s shrewd nature, its history of lies and intrigue and its deception tactics.”

‘Drastically changing’ map

Mr. Kawai, speaking before a private discussion organized by the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said the region faces a “historical moment when the geopolitical map of Asia is drastically changing for the first time since the cease-fire that ended the Korean War in 1953.”

“Kim Jong-un understands well the risks that if he’s found to have used deception against President Trump at their summit, the president could decide to take military action in a fit of fury and launch attacks on North Korea,” he said.

Although Mr. Kim may promise complete disarmament, Pyongyang foresees the process playing out over “a long, long, long term.”

Pyongyang’s “goal for the immediate future is just to receive economic assistance while continuing to own nuclear weapons,” the Japanese adviser said.

With decades of experience dealing with U.S. administrations, the North may also seek to exploit the American domestic political situation, particularly the looming midterm elections, to increase the pressure on Mr. Trump to make a quick deal.

Mr. Kim knows Mr. Trump will be under pressure for a “great achievement that can be shown to his voters,” Mr. Kawai said.

In addition to the 2020 disarmament deadline, Mr. Kawai said Mr. Trump should not agree to ease international sanctions until complete and verified disarmament is achieved.

The Trump administration, said Mr. Kawai, must also resist North Korean pressure to withdraw some 30,000 U.S. troops positioned in South Korea. A withdrawal, he said, would give the North greater leverage to dictate the terms of any reunification between North and South Korea.

Noting that Mr. Kim is only in his 30s, Mr. Kawai argued that the North Korean leader’s strategy is based on a decadeslong time frame.

Pyongyang’s thinking, he said, is that “if we wait it out, President Trump, a very dangerous opponent, will disappear from the scene in due course [and] a president more radical and unpredictable than Mr. Trump is unlikely to emerge in the U.S. political arena in the future.”

The China factor

The wider Northeast Asian geopolitical divide pits China, Russia and North Korea — whose authoritarian leaders, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, will likely all still be in power a decade from now — against the U.S., South Korea and Japan, whose democratically elected presidents will all be replaced in just a few years by unknown successors.

With China’s Mr. Xi consolidating power at home and regionally, Mr. Kawai said, the North Korean leader “may be secretly hoping for the continued presence of U.S. forces in South Korea as a counterbalance to China’s growing influence.”

“If he thinks that it is China rather than the United States that will cause a threat to North Korean security when the Chinese supremacy in the region grows further relative to the declining U.S. influence, Chairman Kim is likely to refrain from demanding the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from South Korea,” the Japanese adviser said.

Debate on the troops issue is heated in South Korea, where some say Mr. Kim is playing a double game between the U.S. and China.

Speculation about Mr. Kim’s ambitions swirled last month when he made a secret visit to Beijing — his first trip outside North Korea since ascending to power seven years ago — to meet with Mr. Xi.

“The reason Kim went to China to meet Xi was very strategic, to [preserve] the China-North Korea relationship in the event that negotiations with the United States fail,” said Joonhyung Kim, a regional geopolitics analyst at South Korea’s Handong University.

Part of a circle of analysts advising the Moon administration in Seoul, Mr. Kim told The Times that the North Korean leader “is a smart guy,” well aware that Washington has dangled the prospect of sanctions relief to bring him to the table.

“He knows if the U.S. kicks the legs out from under the table and makes a sanctions agreement impossible, he can then go back to China, and to Russia, and tell them they shouldn’t follow the U.S.-led sanctions system anymore,” said Mr. Kim. “His going to China was about hedging.”

Paik Hak-soon, a top North Korea specialist with the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, said Pyongyang is skilled at the art of playing great powers off each other.

“Some people say that North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States and they’re trying to buy time, but that may not be the North Korean strategy at all,” said Mr. Paik, who maintains that there’s “a lot of fear in Pyongyang of Chinese influence over North Korea.”

During the Cold War, “North Korea played both China and the Soviet Union off against each other, thereby seeking competitive favors from both communist powers …,” he said. “Now, the Soviet Union is gone and everybody knows that there will be overwhelming dominant Chinese influence coming to North Korea.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, said Mr. Paik, the North Koreans began developing a strategy of potentially warming relations with Washington “as a counterforce to China so they could create a space of independence in their external relations.

“That strategy,” he said, “has never changed.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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