Abe's Speech at the UN General Assembly

September 25, 2017 7:00 AM

The General Debate speeches at the UN are a fixture of fall, and while most disappear some are more than memorable. Although President Trump’s dystopian paean to sovereignty got the spotlight, those by Prime Minister Abe and President Moon were equally if not more revealing of the current diplomatic landscape as both provided extended rationales for national policies. The core message of Abe’s—where I begin today—is essentially to the right of Trump’s: that dialogue with North Korea is impossible. Given that Abe has assiduously courted the president, we have to ask whether Japan is playing a spoiler role in the psychodrama of North Korea policy.   

Abe’s speech was about 1750 words long; no fewer than 1500 were devoted to the North Korea issue. What is striking is the speech’s lack of generality: rather, Abe opted for a blow-by-blow analysis of the North Korean nuclear issue with a single, overriding theme: the utter failure of diplomacy.

The narrative is divided into two parts: the failure of the Agreed Framework and the failure of the Six Party talks. I can sympathize with Japan’s frustration at the Agreed Framework. Tokyo was put on the hook for about $1 billion of KEDO’s expenditure for the two light water reactors, expenditure that the Clinton administration skillfully avoided. About $400 million of that got paid out, and sits rusting and pillaged at the Kumho site.

However Abe’s conclusions on the Agreed Framework are controversial to say the least. Abe claims that the North Koreans never intended to abide by the Agreed Framework and had “continued steadily” with their uranium enrichment. An alternative story line is that they decided at some point after 1994—probably in the late 1990s—to cheat on the agreement thanks to the A.Q. Khan network. But they might have been brought back into line if the first Bush administration had not handled Pyongyang’s derogation in such a ham-fisted way. I am not a fan of 20-20 hindsight, but that is what the writing of history necessarily is. One fact at least is pretty clear: North Korea did not have nuclear weapons during the period when the Agreed Framework was in operation; it acquired them after the agreement collapsed in 2002-3.

The narrative on the Six Party Talks follows a similar story line. Abe walks in detail through the early Six Party negotiations—such as they were—the 2005 Joint Statement and the interim agreements of 2007. But Abe’s history is a little jumbled. While it is true that North Korea claimed it had nuclear weapons in 2005 and tested in 2006, the breakdown of the talks was once again driven in part by divisions within the Bush team that sought to undermine the Joint Statement before the ink on it was even dry (see Christopher Hill’s admittedly self-interested account of these events). Mid-2008 is the most complicated terrain of the second nuclear crisis, and there is still much we don’t know. North Korea bears more than its share of responsibility; by August, with Kim Jong Il’s stroke, the game was probably up. Nonetheless, I still believe it is a mistake to say that those negotiations were a failure. To get some sense of how the landscape has changed, recall that there were American and Russian inspectors on the ground at Yongbyon in 2007-8. Simply to ask whether we were better off now than then is to answer the question.

And in any case, what is the alternative? Abe offers up a policy prescription that is to the right of that articulated by Tillerson and others in the Trump administration (see posts here and here):

“Again and again, attempts to resolve issues through dialogue have all come to naught. In what hope of success are we now repeating the very same failure a third time? We must make North Korea abandon all nuclear and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner. What is needed to do that is not dialogue, but pressure.”

I am a reluctant supporter of the sweeping Executive Order; studying North Korea wears you down. But I also believe it is sheer fantasy that the North Koreans are going to wake up one morning and unilaterally disarm, particularly in the face of open American threats. What is concerning about Abe’s speech is that he appears to have President Trump’s ear. He is effectively undercutting President Moon’s standing—recall the appeasement tweet following an Abe-Trump phone call (see my analysis of that embarrassment at the Joongang Daily here), contributing to the polarization on the issue in the South.

There is a strategy in play that puts China, the US, Russia, South Korea and Japan broadly on the same page, as diverse as their views appear to be: to aggressively isolate North Korea while offering it a diplomatic off-ramp. It is Abe as much as Moon who is off script; I turn to President Moon’s naïveté tomorrow.

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