During a conversation Monday with former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus at Japan Society, former Lieutenant General of Japan's Self-Defense Force Koichi Isobe said North Korea has not stopped military developments despite refraining from provocations.
"Kim Jong Un is gaining time to continue developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles," Isobe said. "The threat of intermediate ballistic missiles [that can target Japan] still remains."
The former Japanese commander added Tokyo faces challenges across three strategic fronts, including the Korean Peninsula.
"Since the 2010s, all three fronts have become tense. Traditional geopolitics has come back to the region."
Gen. Petraeus, best known for leading the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, agreed North Korea is developing nuclear and missile capabilities, but said the testing of missiles stopped because of U.S. President Donald Trump's confrontational approach.
"The only way to [stop provocations] was to get the attention of China, and this is why you had some of the rhetoric, not all of which would have been my choice of words at various times," Petraeus said, referring to Trump's threat in 2017 to "totally destroy" North Korea and "rocket man" Kim.
Petraeus said the U.S. intention to "truly consider the use of force if North Korea doesn't come to its senses" did not go ignored in China, where President Xi Jinping has played a significant role in engaging Kim.
"At the end of the day China has the power of implementing sanctions fully...[China] keeps the lights on in Pyongyang."
Following his New Year's address on Jan. 1, Kim's first overseas visit was to China, where, according to Xinhua, he and Xi agreed to "constantly advance the political settlement process of the Korean Peninsula issue."
The friendly overtures do not mean North Korea has stopped prioritizing negotiations with the United States. By late Monday South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported top North Korean official Kim Yong Chol could be planning a trip to Washington this week.
Eyes on China
A quieter North Korea has also turned Japanese and U.S. attention to Beijing, according to both army generals.
Isobe said the United States has turned a corner on assessing rivals, including China.
"When I first read the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2018, I was astonished that the strategy clearly describes China as a revisionist power," Isobe said, adding claims of a Cold War with China may be too far-fetched.
"Actually it is not a Cold War, because all three countries are trading," said the Japanese analyst. "China is Japan's important trading partner."
Petraeus said the National Security Strategy not only reflects opinions in the Trump administration about China, Russia, Iran or North Korea, but demonstrates bipartisan recognition that tensions with China are real and unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
"Some of the hopeful assumption about the rise of China have not materialized," he said.
Both generals agreed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to revise Japan's Constitution, and increase the military budget, are good moves.
"The defense of Japan would help U.S. national security," Isobe said.