Chicago Shimpo
N. Korea & Trade: U.S.-Japan Relations
in Trump Era

Yabunaka, Veteran Diplomat & Negotiator
Offers Outlook


• Mitoji Yabunaka, former Consul-General in Chicago and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, presented his perspective on the U.S.-Japan relations under the Trump administration during a lecture held in Chicago on July 13, with a special focus on North Korea and trade.

• Yabunaka was invited by the Japan America Society of Chicago for a special lecture entitled: “Japan-U.S. Relations under the Trump Administration: North Korea, Trade” held at Kirkland & Ellis LLC.

• Yabunaka began his 40-year career with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1969. Dedicating himself as a diplomatic negotiator throughout his career, he was engaged in many trade negotiations including the U.S.-Japan trade negotiations and the Uruguay Round world trade talks during the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the Kennedy Round (1960s) and Tokyo Round (1970s) talks.
• After serving as the Consul-General of Japan in Chicago from 1998 to 2002, Yabunaka was appointed as the Director-General of the Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau and took part in the Six-Party Talks on the North Korea nuclear issue until 2004, visiting that country three times as the representative of the Japanese government. From 2008 to his retirement in 2010, he was the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs.
• Currently, Yabunaka serves as Adviser to the Minister for Foreign Affairs while teaching at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University as a professor of international relations. He also runs “terakoya,” a private school where young people discuss Japan and international relations.

About the U.S.-Japan Relations

• According to Yabunaka, alliance and free trade, the pillars of the framework for international prosperity in the post-World War II era, are undergoing seismic changes today.

• Yabunaka said U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial behaviors at the NATO summit in July indicates that the alliance is at risk, demonstrating “division” among the U.S. and the other NATO members. This also has significant implications for Japan and Asia; the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty remains as the key to Japan’s security, and the fate of that security now depends on what happens to Trump.

• It is also apparent that the “G7 era” (the era of fair trade as the principle of multilateral relationship) is over, as the most recent G7 summit in Canada has revealed a conflict between Trump and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
• This means the end of the 70-year post-war period and the beginning of a “new chapter.” The U.S. as the leader of the G7 and democracy is no more and is now under the lead of Trump, who doesn’t care about democracy. The 70-year-old belief in alliance and democracy is at risk, and uncertainty and fear are now emerging as a norm. “You must change your mindset,” Yabunaka said.

• The U.S.-Japan relations currently remain in good terms as President Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have a friendly relationship. Personal ties are important for Trump, and Abe has established personal ties with Trump where he wouldn’t say anything that contradicts Trump.
• The situation is starkly different with Germany. At the NATO summit, Trump demanded German Chancellor Angela Markel to increase her country’s defense budget as a NATO member. While Japan and Germany both have a large amount of trade surplus with the U.S., only Germany has been picked out by Trump, because of the nice, friendly relationship between Trump and Abe, according to Yabunaka.
• While Abe has been successful in appeasing Trump, Yabunaka noted that it would not be enough to just say yes to Trump; future situations may require Japan to stand up to, or even criticize, Trump.

About North Korea

• The U.S.-North Korea summit on June 12 in Singapore was an unprecedented event, a historic step forward that had been unthinkable for us a year ago.
• North Korea would have targeted Japan in retaliation, had the U.S. deployed its military forces against it. Because of this, Yabunaka said that the Singapore summit was a step in a right direction.

• The U.S. and North Korea have reportedly agreed on: (1) establishing new U.S.-North Korea relationship; (2) building lasting peace; (3) denuclearization; and (4) recovery of U.S. POW/MIA remains during the Korean War.

• Regarding denuclearization, the agreement states that Kim reaffirmed “his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” This indicates what Kim’s intentions are – there is the underlying issue of the U.S. forces in South Korea, part of the Korean Peninsula. Yabunaka pointed out the fact that the agreement is not Kim’s promise of total denuclearization in his country, but a mere statement of future “effort” toward that goal.
• In this context, the summit was a failure. “I sympathize with Secretary of State Pompeo and other U.S. negotiators,” Yabunaka said.

• Yabunaka thinks that Japan should play a direct role toward North Korea’s denuclearization specifically because, unlike the United States, Japan is within the range of nuclear attack from North Korea. Japan also has the unsolved issue of Japanese abductees in North Korea – the country has announced that eight of the Japanese abductees, taken to North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, had passed away while five are still alive (the Japanese government has determined the remains of Megumi Yokota, one of the abductees, that had been returned to Japan, are not actually hers).

• All the past six-party talks involving North Korea have failed. Yabunaka suggested the level of the responsible negotiators be upgraded, while stressing that Japan should tell Trump unequivocally that a “limited” denuclearization of North Korea (abandonment of the long-range nuclear ballistic missile development program) is not acceptable.

About Trade

• Drastic reduction of the U.S. trade deficit is one of the top priorities of President Trump, and the force of trade protectionism is growing, threatening free trade practice. The recent U.S. policy of additional tariffs is against the principles of the World Trade Organization (“WTO”), and Japan can argue the U.S. move through filing complaints with the WTO.

• While the Japanese businesses haven’t been hit directly yet, Yabunaka suggests Japan speak up against the U.S. tariffs, as the Trump administration is reportedly considering yet more tariffs on automobile imports.

• Yabunaka predicted trade war will occur with the probability of more than 40%.
• China has announced retaliatory tariffs on American imports, and the cycle of retaliation seems to continue. If the cycle is not broken, there will be no exit and a path to a “soft landing” will be closed.
• This is an extremely dangerous situation, but there are no high-level advisors in the White House to say “No” to President Trump – anyone who dares to stand up to Trump has been removed. As conflicts mount in the U.S. administration and G7 member nations, the big question is who will and how to handle the U.S. president.

• Yabunaka has been vocal about his belief in Vice President Mike Pence as a “great asset” for Japan. According to Yabunaka, Pence, a former Indiana governor, is clearly aware of the benefit Japanese businesses bring to the state of Indiana and understands the significance of maintaining a good trade relationship between the U.S. and Japan.

• In contrast, President Trump’s view of trade between the two countries hasn’t changed since the 1980s, when U.S.-Japan trade frictions were at their peak, according to Yabunaka.
• The business landscape has changed remarkably since then, however. Japanese manufacturers in the U.S. have been making products at their U.S. factories and exporting the products to other countries, contributing to the expansion of U.S. exports. This is something Trump doesn’t understand but Pence does.

• Overall, Yabunaka remains optimistic about the U.S.-Japan trade relations. However, in view of the worsening relationships between the U.S., China, and the EU, he believes that Japan must be ready to speak up.

• In addition to getting along with the U.S., Yabunaka said Japan should formulate its own policies with the possibility of having to protect itself. The three policies he suggests are:

• Japan should play a role of a mediator in Asia. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have national defense power that is ranked seventh or eighth in the world. Japan also has obtained trust of the other Asian nations throughout the past 70 years (ASEAN member nations today view Japan as the most trustworthy country). The best scenario for them is that Japan and China join forces against the backdrop of trade controversies in the area, China’s maritime aggression in the South China Sea, etc.

• Japan should be the builder of peace in Asia, leading the peace-building effort by implementing peace diplomacy.

• Japan should cooperate with China. Many Japanese have a persistent feeling that China is untrustworthy, but interestingly, a lot of Japanese negotiators engaging in the China-Japan talks are adhering strongly to the notion of a friendly China-Japan relationship.

• The 2008 negotiations on the East China Sea oilfield development project, in which Yabunaka took part, did not result in a treaty, but the project has been agreed upon to be carried out under the cooperation of the two countries.
• Though there are political issues between China and Japan such as the Senkaku Islands disputes, they will still be able to work together in the areas of culture and economy.

• In conclusion, Yabunaka said it is his belief that Japan should carry the Security Treaty with the U.S. on the one hand and promote ties with China, South Korea and other Asian nations on the other, including involvement in the North Korean issues.


Mitoji Yabunaka, former Consul-General in Chicago and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan