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Work Together to Prevent a Second Korean War

The heightening tensions between North Korea and America has generated significant analysis and debate about what is at stake for the U.S.  Yet the interests and concerns of citizens in Japan have not been adequately entered into policy discussions to date.  That is why I recently led a high level delegation of Japanese business and civic leaders on a discussion and learning tour in the United States.  Our goal was to both learn how the policy options are viewed by US experts and to communicate our concerns about the consequences of pursuing different options.  

 What we learned only increased our view that Japan’s interests are not well understood nor getting adequate attention, despite the fact our country is in the immediate crosshairs of any hostilities that might occur.  Moreover, the opportunity to draw on Japan as a direct player in helping to deescalate the immediate tensions and put all parties on a mutually beneficial path has not yet been recognized.

 Our biggest concern is that leaders in North Korea and the U.S. are taking mutually reinforcing and provocative actions that edge each other toward a military confrontation.  Korea continues to test increasingly powerful ballistic missiles and might soon test another nuclear weapon. U.S. Vice President Pence says “all options are on the table” and the Administration demonstrates it resolve by sending more naval power into the region.

 The joint effects of these actions have raised tensions in the region to a higher level than any time since the end of the Korean War. Threatening messages by the US and North Korean leaders sound like both will not hesitate to attack if further provoked. While none of the U.S. experts we met with endorsed further escalation, they recognized there is a real possibility that this escalation could continue until either President Trump or North Korean President Kim is provoked into taking military action.  If this happens, Japan and South Korea will be the first to suffer the devastating effects.

 But our discussions with American experts suggested there are at least two other options that need to be considered in addition to escalation toward a military solution.

 A second option is to ask China to take actions to control the situation by diplomatic warnings, economic sanctions, and military pressure if necessary.  To some extent this is already happening and could be intensified.  China shares the interests of its neighbors in the region in avoiding further escalation of rhetoric.  If it played a leading role in brokering a de-escalation of tensions it could emerge as an even stronger leader and power in the region.  China could further strengthen its hand if could guarantee the support of the US, Japan, South Korea, and perhaps other allies in helping North Korea develop deal with the severe food shortages, develop its economy, and address its related domestic problems.  Under this scenario, China’s miraculous progress of the past three decades could be a model for North Korea.

A third option is to pursue a more multilateral solution through diplomatic negotiation to make Mr. Kim, Jon Un realize abandoning reckless challenges and to instead denuclearize is the way for him to maintain his regime, address his domestic challenges, and save face.  History suggests this would require the help of quiet behind the scenes or back channel diplomacy by trusted intermediaries.  The Japanese public was encouraged by the extended amount of time President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe spent together recently at the President’s Mara Lago resort.  Our hope is the personal relationships built up during their visit might have helped the President better understand Japan’s interests in this matter and increase his willingness to ask the Japanese Prime Minister to do whatever he can to help broker a peaceful path forward.

Whatever mix of these options is chosen it is important to understand that Mr. Kim, Jon Un is an extremely self-centered and unpredictable personality.  All interested parties outside of Korea need to work together very carefully to not provoke him act on impulse. Further incremental escalation should be avoided for this reason. The China option is a more workable and realistic way to minimize the risk of the war. The third option requires President Trump and Chinese leaders to recognize the legitimate stake Japan has in this conflict and to see Japan as a potential diplomatic channel for forging a longer term solution that benefits all the parties.

 The US, China, and Japan must take all these possibilities and their likely consequences into account and closely and carefully work together to avoid an irreparable catastrophe.

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