by Motoko Rich
TOKYO — As North Korea conducted ballistic missile and nuclear tests and President Donald Trump threatened fiery responses last year, Japan and South Korea feared the worst: a nuclear conflict on their front doorsteps.
But now, as Trump accepts an offer from North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to discuss the country’s nuclear program, another fear is looming: that Trump might offer concessions that the North’s Asian neighbors would find unpalatable, or, if the talks fail, resort to a military option.
Shortly after the announcement of the summit meeting, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, told reporters he appreciated “North Korea’s change” and attributed the diplomatic overture to the pressure of sanctions coordinated by the United States, Japan and South Korea.
“We will continue imposing the utmost pressure until North Korea takes specific actions toward thorough, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” Abe said, emphasizing that “Japan and the US have been and will be together 100 percent.”
He also said he would visit Trump in Washington next month to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue before the president meets Kim.
Analysts saw Abe’s language as suggesting that Japan fears that the North might define denuclearization differently from the rest of the world.
“I think there’s real concern about a deal-maker president talking one-on-one with Kim, accepting something less than” verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy based in New York.
“The Japanese government obviously wants the North Korean threat resolved,” he added, “but I don’t think Japanese officials are naive about the difficulty of achieving a truly meaningful disarmament agreement under these circumstances.”
In remarks released by the White House, an unnamed senior official said Trump had spoken with Abe on Thursday night in Washington. The official added that the administration sought a verifiable deal for the permanent denuclearization of North Korea.
In Seoul, a spokeswoman for President Moon Jae-in described the invitation to talk as “another great breakthrough.”
Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s invitation to a summit meeting clearly marked a diplomatic victory for Moon, adding momentum to the South Korean leader’s efforts to steer the nuclear crisis from talk of war toward negotiations.
But analysts quickly noted the risks for Washington and Seoul if Kim did not live up to US expectations for negotiations, or if South Korea pursued better relations with the North even if Kim did not take any steps toward denuclearization.
“Announcing intention for a U.S.-North Korea summit, with so many details yet undetermined, carries risks,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “If the Trump-Kim meeting breaks down, both engagement and pressure campaigns could suffer.”
There was no immediate reaction from China’s Foreign Ministry, but some Chinese analysts were pleased the United States was seizing on a diplomatic opening.
“The United States cannot resist North Korea’s proposals, and Trump is grabbing at them,” said Cheng Xiaohe, professor of international relations at Renmin University. “That’s good.”
Yet any talks could end up offering only a temporary reprieve, given the US readiness for military action.
“What is worth paying attention to is whether North Korea will state very clearly that they are willing to give up their nuclear weapons,” said Zhang Liangui, professor of international studies at the Central Party School of the Communist Party.
“If North Korea tries to beat around the bush again this time,” Zhang added, “I think the U.S. is ready to resolve the problem with force.”
In Japan, where Abe has worked to maintain a close relationship with the US president, analysts said officials were keen to rein in Trump’s impulsive tendencies and willingness to disregard the wishes of his key allies.
On the same day that Trump accepted Kim’s invitation, he announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, a move that Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, described as “regrettable.”
Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat, said he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the planned dialogue, putting his faith in a wide circle of advisers in Washington and internationally.
“No matter what Mr. Trump says, the foreign policy establishment and other like-minded political leaders would not hopefully allow the president to make a concession that we cannot accept,” Miyake said. “But we will wait and see.”