Alliance or agreement?

Talks resume in Beijing on the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the big story is that Japan and North Korea came to blows over the abductions issue.

This was always the danger of Japan’s pushing the abductions issue at all costs in the face of the North Korean stone wall: the US will have to choose between standing alongside Japan on abductions or urging Japan to back down in the interests of the push towards a nuclear agreement. The US has already paid a price to get to this point, having decided to release the frozen $25 million at Banco Delta Asia in Macau — for which it is facing criticism, especially from the right, as seen in this FT article. As a result, it is hard to imagine the Bush administration slamming on the brakes, holding up talks until North Korea satisfies Japan’s demands.

So essentially, North Korea laid the trap — and Japan has taken the bait, putting tremendous pressure on the US to choose between its ally and a potential deal. Now, an agreement that actually disarmed North Korea, however unlikely, would be in Japan’s interest, but if the process to reach the agreement produced significant friction and bad blood between the US and Japan, the long-term consequences could be devastating, leading to a more isolated, fiercely independent Gaullist Japan that sought its own conventional and nuclear deterrent capabilities.

And if you think I’m being alarmist, look at the cover story of Tuesday’s Yomiuri Shimbun: a long reconsideration of the US nuclear umbrella that ends with an (envious) look at Britain’s recent decision to renew its nuclear submarine program.

As I have maintained before, Japan’s decision to emphasize the abductions issue above all else risks causing serious damage to the alliance with the US, and, consequently, greater instability in the region. Accordingly, the time for political coordination on the six-party talks between the US and Japan is now, before the talks move closer to an agreement.

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