According to media reports, the Japanese government has launched an effort to coordinate details for an upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un.
This meeting has become possible following the recent Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, which caused mixed feelings in Japan. On the one hand, Kim’s declared commitment to the full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula gives Tokyo some hope. On the other hand, Pyongyang has assumed no specific obligations and Japan is seriously concerned, being both a target for North Korean nuclear missiles and the odd man out in the diplomatic processes involving the DPRK.
Therefore, there are several important reasons why Japan should step up its efforts to establish direct contact with the DPRK.
First, Tokyo is aware that it will have to pay Pyongyang for renouncing its nuclear program, but no budget allocations are possible unless it has normal relations with North Korea. President Trump has openly declared that it is Japan, along with South Korea, that will have to bankroll denuclearization, including the withdrawal of radioactive materials from North Korea, the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear reactor and other related work and inspections, etc. Meanwhile, Japan has not forgotten the humiliation it suffered in connection with its role in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, which was limited to a financial contribution. This “check-book diplomacy” has badly affected the country’s international prestige. Now, as it establishes relations with Pyongyang in the capacity of a partner to deal with the nuclear issue, Tokyo sees an opportunity to energize its political role in the context of a peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula. For example, as a potential major sponsor of denuclearization, Japan would have the moral right to come up with an initiative to resume the six-party talks or hold a meeting of the six countries’ foreign ministers or another major international forum.
In addition, a political dialogue with Pyongyang is of importance for Tokyo as another window of opportunity in resolving the abduction issue. Although Trump, according to his own admission, brought up this issue during the Singapore summit, this subject was not mentioned in the joint statement. Trump simply advised his counterpart to address the issue at a personal meeting with the Japanese leader. In response, Kim Jong-un expressed “understanding.”
The North Korean leader’s statement actually indicated a qualitative shift in his country’s position. Meeting in Stockholm in May 2014, Japan and the DPRK reached an agreement on North Korea launching yet another investigation into whether there were abducted Japanese citizens in the country. Later, Pyongyang unilaterally declared that the problem was definitively solved. But the situation is different again after Kim’s statement, which made Shinzo Abe react immediately by saying that Kim and he should “eventually” solve the abduction issue.
These new developments put Tokyo’s current objectives in its relations with North Korea on the agenda. These are a greater contribution to denuclearization, a new agreement on the abductees and, at a later stage, if the above matters are resolved successfully, restoration of state-to-state relations and all-out economic aid to the DPRK.
Against this backdrop, Tokyo has stepped up efforts to organize a bilateral summit. Japanese and North Korean diplomats are expected to hold consultations in Ulan Bator later this week on the sidelines of the Northeast Asian Security International Conference. The Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, Japan’s central intelligence agency, is also preparing for the summit.
In reality, two summit options are under consideration. First, Shinzo Abe is expected to visit Pyongyang especially for this purpose in August of this year. Second, the summit may be held on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok scheduled for September 11-13, 2018. Shinzo Abe, who has repeatedly attended this forum in the past, has expressed his intention to attend this year as well. For his part, Kim Jong-un was specially invited to the forum by the Russian president.
In connection with preparations for a bilateral summit, Abe finds himself in an awkward political position. On the one hand, his efforts meet with the approval of the Japanese public: the news that he would meet with Kim, which is seen as an important step forward in dealing with this problem, has an approval rating of 65% in polls while only 27% disapprove. On the other hand, Abe’s high ratings are based on his toughness and intransigence towards North Korea both on the abductees and denuclearization. However any common solution to the abduction issue would require both sides to compromise, something that may cast aspersions on Abe’s image as an implacable fighter for national interests. This is why he is facing a difficult dilemma and will have to display exceptional diplomatic finesse in addressing it.
For Russia, a potential Japanese-North Korean summit in Vladivostok provides an impetus to promote its relations with both Japan and the DPRK. The Russian president’s mediation in organizing the summit will certainly be praised not only by Tokyo and Pyongyang but also by other world capitals. Importantly, Russia will also be able to raise its profile in dealing with the Korean issue, which is quite modest at the moment. But the September summit may come under threat because of the upcoming elections for Japanese Liberal Democratic Party president that are scheduled for the same month. Faced with strong rivals, Abe may give up on foreign travel.