On April 20, the Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward interviewed Edwin J. Feulner, PhD, about the recent summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and United States President Donald Trump.
Dr. Feulner was founder and former president of The Heritage Foundation, a respected Washington DC-based conservative think tank. He headed it from 1977 to 2013, and again briefly in 2017. Now he is a chairman of Asian Studies Center, The Heritage Foundation.
A native of the Chicago area, he holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and received a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh with additional study at the London School of Economics. He has been active in Republican politics at both the state and national levels.
Here are summarized excerpts from the interview.
Dr. Feulner, what is your candid evaluation of the recent summit meeting between Prime Minister Abe and President Trump?
First, let me offer a reminder to the Japanese that as a candidate and as president, Donald Trump was quick to contact Prime Minister Abe—something that is especially important in the context of North Korea. The rapport between Mr. Abe and Mr. Trump was a major factor in the U.S. President internalizing the abduction issue, something of singular importance to Japan, but also an issue for the U.S.
The recent contact between South Korean President Moon [Jae-in] and North Korean leader Kim [Jong-un], and that between President Trump and leader Kim, are positive developments. However, the Seoul-Pyongyang and Washington-Pyongyang contacts must be coupled with the full inclusion of Japan with “no space” between Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. in their dealings with North Korea.
President Trump is learning to recognize that countries that have been long-term friends of the U.S. and supportive of U.S. positions deserve special treatment relative to those countries—which I won’t name here—that steal U.S. intellectual property and take advantage of the U.S. in trade.
What are your thoughts on President Trump agreeing to meet Kim Jong-un, even though there had been no previous discussion of such a meeting.
The agenda for political discourse in Washington is currently set by Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, and Minority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives) at one end of the political spectrum, and Paul Ryan (Republican, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives) at the other end. President Trump, on the other hand, thinks totally “out of the box” and he sets his own agenda. President Trump is a disrupter. That’s why he gets things done. That’s why we had the first tax cut in 25 years.
Speaking of President Trump and North Korea, the President’s indelicate comments, like Little Rocket Man, got their attention, but because he also said, “nothing is off the table,” he left the way open for negotiations. More importantly, his tough talk made the generals around Kim Jong-un recognize that Trump was quite different from his predecessors and not someone to be pushed around.
Negotiations are one thing and denuclearization of North Korea, which is of great importance to the U.S., is another. Denuclearization must be verifiable, so do you see a great gap between the U.S. and North Korea on this point. If so, how can the gap be bridged?
It is critically important to the U.S. that we have rapid inspection of North Korea’s nuclear facilities and programs by trusted inspectors with unlimited access. Just look at the problems of making any progress with the inspections of the gas attack in Syria, which were delayed by the Russians, presumably to allow a cleanup before the inspectors arrive. You cannot have the inspectors picked by some third party with possible sympathies toward North Korea.
Moreover, in the North Korea case, it is not just the elimination of nuclear weapons that is of concern, but also getting rid of the missile threat—medium-range in the case of Japan, long-range in the case of the U.S.
Because President Trump is a tough and experienced negotiator, he will want to see denuclearization started before any agreement is signed and before sanctions are lifted. He will not be like President [Bill] Clinton and will not make agreements with the expectation that they will be honored later. Mr. Trump will want to see hard evidence early on.
President Trump has said formally and informally that it would be “a much better world for them” if they respond positively and fully denuclearize. I am very upbeat about what will happen at the Trump-Kim summit.
Many Japanese politicians are worried that President Trump will make a deal with Kim Jong-un that eliminates the long-range missile threat to the U.S., while leaving North Korea with its short- and medium-range missiles that are a threat to Japan. Do you think this is possible?
Because Japan is so important to the U.S., the whole U.S. team—President Trump, Mr. [John] Bolton, General [James] Mattis, Mr. [Mike] Pompeo, etc.—knows the importance of eliminating the short- and medium-range missile threat.
While we do have some slight concern, we also know that Mr. Trump is a tough negotiator who thinks things through. He is a skilled chess player who can look ahead five or six moves and anticipate the responses of his adversary. He knows how to use in negotiation both the stick: sanctions; and carrots: aid. His skill is demonstrated by the fact that even China is now participating in sanctions against North Korea.
Can you tell us who ordered CIA Director Mike Pompeo to visit North Korea?
The boss, Donald Trump.
How was the Pompeo visit set up and organized?
Oh, it was set up through third-party contacts, such as Sweden, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea, and through diplomatic contacts at the United Nations. It is also possible that Beijing was involved.
What is currently happening between the U.S. and North Korea at this moment?
Now they are trying to find out how far they can go with each other. The U.S. has very clear measurable objectives, including the verified irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons, and will not put up with the empty talk that North Korea has been doing for 25 years. Presumably the possibility of investment in North Korea is being considered.
The U.S. is probably also making it clear that, if Mr. Kim behaves and North Korea acts like a responsible member of the United Nations—something it should be doing anyway—the U.S. will not press for regime change.
If Kim looks around, he should see that not just the Korean people at large but also the elites are suffering because of sanctions. All information sources we have indicate this. He should be able to realize that if he behaves in a responsible manner and the sanctions are lifted, things will be much better for North Korea and its people.
I am cautiously optimistic, but I am worried about one thing in this day and age when everyone is on Twitter, Facebook, or some other social media. They want instant gratification. This is not going to come about instantly. This is going to be a process. This is going to take time.
Do you think President Trump can persuade Kim Jong-un to deliver and not just make promises?
I wouldn’t say it quite that way. I think the question is whether the President can make Mr. Kim realize the gravity of the situation he is in. You can’t change him unless he himself realizes that he has to change.
Do you think there is the possibility of freeing the Japanese and Americans who have been detained by North Korea?
I think that, as a confidence-building measure, it would be a relatively easy thing for Kim Jong-un to do. He didn’t personally order the abductions. He can say that it’s a legacy from the past—let’s get over it, and let’s move on and talk about the future. That would, I think, win him praise from the Japanese people, from the American people, and from the South Korean people.
Donald Trump relates to issues on a personal level. The stories of the abductees’ parents still wondering what happened to their children—that is what gets Donald Trump’s attention, not just the statements made by the Prime Minister. It’s the way he thinks—on a person-to-person basis.
Do you think Japan and the U.S. might have to make concessions to get the abductees released?
We really won’t know until President Trump and Mr. Kim meet each other, even though when they meet, much will have already been decided through earlier negotiations. We also have to keep in mind that Donald Trump has said he will withdraw from the summit if things are not going well from his viewpoint. That should keep the North Koreans focused on making real progress.
More than anything, the North Koreans want the sanctions lifted, but President Trump will not start lifting them until he sees real, concrete, verifiable progress over a span of time.
(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)