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Tokyo And Seoul: Fears And Hopes For Second Trump-Kim Summit


Two of North Korea's neighbors will be watching this week's summit very closely - South Korea and Japan. They are key U.S. allies in Asia, also potential targets of North Korea's weapons. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul about their fears and hopes for the meeting.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: According to a recent survey, about 54 percent of South Koreans are optimistic that the Trump-Kim summit will produce a deal leading to the eventual denuclearization of North Korea. Around the time of the first Trump-Kim summit, that figure was 75 percent.

A Seoul-based think tank, the Asan Institute for Policy Research (ph), conducted that survey. And Shin Beomchul, a North Korea expert there, says of course South Koreans remember that North Korea has reneged on previous pledges to give up its nuclear weapons.

SHIN BEOMCHUL: However, still, majority of the Korean people have a - just kind of appreciating the current negotiation process because we really suffer the threat in 2017.

KUHN: According to the survey, most respondents now think the threat of war on the Korean peninsula is low in the immediate future. Shin, though, is concerned that North Korea will offer minor concessions at the talks in an attempt to draw out the negotiating process.

SHIN: If North Korea decides that this kind of a denuclearization step - maybe more than five or six - a deal with them takes one or two years. So then it would be very hard for us to denuclearize North Korea.

KUHN: By that time, he worries North Korea will have cemented its status as a nuclear state, and President Trump's successors in the White House may not be so willing to negotiate with Pyongyang.

His other big concern is that President Trump will strike a deal in which North Korea gives up its long-range missiles, which can target the U.S. mainland, but leaves Pyongyang its medium- and short-range missiles, which can hit South Korea and Japan.

In contrast to the U.S.' focus on keeping sanctions in place, South Korea's policy is to incentivize North Korea to give up its nukes in exchange for economic cooperation. But Cho Han-bum, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul, says inter-Korean economic cooperation can't move ahead without a successful summit.

CHO HAN-BUM: (Through interpreter) Seoul wants to pursue denuclearization, inter-Korean relations and a peace regime simultaneously, rather than putting inter-Korean relations first.

KUHN: Japan, meanwhile, is working to make sure that its interests are still represented even though it's not at the talks. Mintaro Oba, a speechwriter and former U.S. diplomat, notes that Japan is focused on some narrow interests which are not shared by the U.S.

MINTARO OBA: One is the issue of Japanese citizens who have been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s - a very emotional issue for the Japanese people.

KUHN: Tokyo has taken a harder line on North Korea than Seoul and enthusiastically backed U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang. Oba says this fits in with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's aim of revising Japan's U.S.-drafted postwar constitution, especially its limitations on Japan's military.

OBA: It was in Prime Minister Abe's domestic interest to play up the North Korea threat and demonstrate the necessity of strengthening Japan's own security posture, which could include the constitutional reform that Prime Minister Abe has always wanted.

KUHN: Japan says Oba has the potential to play a key role in any deal on North Korea. It has the economic clout to help North Korea develop if it chooses to denuclearize. And if it doesn't and things take a drastic turn for the worse, then U.S. military bases in Japan will become extremely important. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.