North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does not want to be away from the international limelight. Domestically, he spent considerable time to consolidate power after succeeding his father upon his death by ruthless means such as purges, executions, hard labour etc. to send the message to the people in the country that he is in control. This was followed by a series of short and long range missile launches, including intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of mounting a nuclear warhead atop it, thereby bringing considerable part of the US within range. Some missiles also flew over Hokkaido, the Northern island of Japan, posing grave threat to this neighbouring country. He also conducted nuclear test, thereby announcing to the world that it has become a nuclear power, eligible to sit across table with world powers with equal status.
When the liberal Moon Jae-in took power in the neighbouring South Korea and launched peace initiatives, Kim was quick to respond. Thus began his foray at the international stage that led to two summit meetings with the US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June 2018 and in Hanoi in February 2019, besides a number of summit meetings with his South Korean counterpart. He also visited China, North Korea’s principal ally and backer for summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kim also travelled to Russia in late April 2019 for a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite that Kim has held at least one leadership summit with each of the region’s major powers, Japan remains the only exception as a summit between Kim and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has not materialised.
The question that remains to be answered, will a summit between Kim and Abe be any different as all previous summits with major powers have virtually yielded nothing. The denuclearisation issue remains a non-starter. Despite reports that Abe is keen to have a summit with Kim, his remarks in March 2018 that “talks for the sake of talks are meaningless” left analyst to rethink about what Abe has really in the mind. That time, Japan had put preconditions such as Kim abiding Trump’s denuclearisation demands and Kim to resolve the controversial abduction issue. However, after the flurry of dialogues, though yielding no result as yet, Japan feels left sidelined from this dialogue process, which is why in a stark reversal now Abe expresses the merit of keeping the dialogue option open. Abe now says that both he and Kim must meet so that the current mutual mistrust is broken.
For Japan, besides the all important denuclearisation issue, resolving the case of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s has remained a key foreign policy priority. Japan is also concerned that North Korea fired short and medium-range missiles around and over Japanese territory, posing serious security threat to the country.
A possible summit meeting between Abe and Kim would aim to comprehensively address the denuclearisation issues, including the abduction of Japanese nationals, and would be in line with meetings between South Korea and North Korea, and that between the United States and North Korea. However, there has been no clarity in Japan on what kinds of achievements it could expect from a summit if it happens.
Fearing diplomatic isolation and to stay relevant in fast-moving diplomacy with Pyongyang, one could see a potential shift in Japan’s diplomacy by neither confirming nor denying its seriousness of seeking a summit meeting with Kim. To keep its relevance that it feared was being marginalised for not been able to have a summit with Kim, Abe reiterates the often stated assertion that the three countries, Japan, the US and South Korea, continue to closely coordinate policies. Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga remarked: “We wish to make progress on our efforts to reach a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear, missile, and abduction (of Japanese citizens)… and as part of that, we will review our way forward from the perspective of the most effective approach.”
Japan has been concerned that talks between South Korea and North Korea, between the US and North Korea, between China and North Korea and the latest being between Putin and Kim, could progress without Japan’s engagement and this spurred the government’s plans for the summit meeting with Kim. Though there are no signs of such a summit happening in the near future and if diplomacy triumphs and a Japan-North Korea summit is realised, that would be the first such encounter since May 2004, when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang and met the then leader, Kim Jong-il, the current North Korean leader’s father. That time, Abe had travelled to the North Korean capital with Koizumi as his chief cabinet secretary.
If Kim conceded to Abe’s sustained desire to see him, the move would be a perceptible departure for the latter, which has so far joined the hard-line stance of the US advocating “maximum pressure” on the isolated regime. Last year, Abe suddenly was confronted with a domestic scandal over a land deal that threatened his bid to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. The political turmoil was over Abe’s alleged role in the sale of government land to one of his supporters, that was the apparent subject of a cover-up by the finance ministry. It probably occurred to Abe that this could change the public focus after multiple cycles of scandal coverage. But the biggest factor behind efforts for a summit was probably the feeling of Japan suddenly left out of North Korea developments.
On his two trips that Koizumi made to the North Korean capital, he achieved the return of some Japanese citizens abducted by the regime, as well as some family members. Surely, Abe sees a fresh chance to make progress resolving the issue of the abductions that took place in the 1970s and 1980s if a summit meeting with the North Korean leader takes place. Earlier some headway looked to have been made but when North Korea fired two missiles in 2017, and three intercontinental ballistic missiles on steep trajectories into the Sea of Japan, talks broke down. In September 2017, Kim’s regime threatened to sink Japan “into the sea” with a nuclear strike and turn the US into “ashes and darkness”. Any hope for a summit vanished quickly.
Notwithstanding the desire for a summit with Kim, Japan continues to remain as the most hard-line of hardliners, constantly expressing scepticism about the North Korean opening to dialogue. Abe rose to political prominence on his calls for a tough line on North Korea, which only hardened after North Korea fired two missiles that flew over Japan in 2017.
In fact, the hostility goes both ways, with Pyongyang regularly excoriating Japan, including over its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century. A recent commentary in the official Korean Central News Agency is illustrative of Pyongyang’s confidence to take on Japan if the situation warrants. It observed: “Korea is not a weak nation as it used to be in the past when it was trampled under the jackboots of the Japanese imperialists.”
Pyongyang is miffed over Abe’s sustained demand of “maximum pressure”, and especially after Japan played a leading role in monitoring North Korea’s illicit ship-to-ship transfers. In fact, Pyongyang’s denouncement of Japan has been more pronounced since early 2018, even as its criticism of other major powers has lessened a bit. Though Abe persuaded Trump to raise the abduction issue in both the summits he had with Kim, it failed to make any diplomatic progress, not to speak of any headway on the core issue of denuclerisation.
Having realised the futility of a hard-line approach and seeing merit in the larger context of remaining relevant diplomatically, Abe seemed to have chosen to soften stance on how to deal with Pyongyang if a summit is to be realised. Such a changed stance can be discernible from the fact that it chose to drop the term “maximum pressure” from its most recent annual foreign policy report, known as the “diplomatic Bluebook”, besides declining to submit an annual motion to the UN condemning North Korean human rights abuses.
The question that arises is why this volte-face suddenly? Does it mean that Abe felt betrayed by Trump by not consulting him before he changed stance to diplomacy in 2018 after a period of “fire and fury” when both Abe and Trump reaffirmed their shared hard-line approach to dealing with North Korea? It however does not mean that fundamentals in the relationship have changed. While speaking for dialogue with Pyongyang, Abe has also warned that North Korea cannot be trusted and that the policy of maximum pressure remains unchanged.
Japan’s continued stance can also be read from the speech of Japan’s defense minister Takeshi Iwaya at the Asian Security Summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, on June 1, 2019 in Singapore wherein he reminded that North Korea remains a threat to global security, urging the international community to work closely to achieve denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. He also criticised Pyongyang’s recent firing of short-range missiles on My 4 and 9 as being in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, while emphasising that defense authorities should maintain deterrence against North Korea. The missile firing was following the Hanoi summit that ended in fiasco, leading Pyongyang to resume its provocative actions against Washington, though surprisingly Trump dismissed any threat perception during his meeting with Abe in May. Iwaya was just parroting the often-stated stance of Japan that concerted efforts need to be sustained so that UN Security Council resolutions that aim to thwart North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambition are implemented. He further underlined the importance of “robust deterrence” against Pyongyang.
At the same session on the Korean Peninsula, Stephen Biegun, US special representative for North Korea, also spoke about the importance of continuing talks with Pyongyang despite the missile launches. The South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo worried that tensions on the peninsula may be rekindled, depending on future developments on denuclearisation talks. It may be recalled that at the February 27-28 Hanoi summit, a deal failed due to the gap between Washington’s insistence on denuclearisation and Pyongyang’s demand for sanctions relief. While Kim has sought the easing of international economic sanctions, claiming that his country has already carried out concrete steps toward denuclearisation, Trump argues that relaxing of economic sanctions requires North Korea to scrap all its nuclear facilities and programs. Kim is believed to be trying to gain concessions from Trump by provoking him even when Trump could claim to have achieved results during his re-election campaign in 2020.
Under such circumstance, Japan has reason to feel betrayed as it is one of the most important allies of the US in Asia. The way Trump has conducted diplomacy often vacillating from tough rhetoric of “fire and fury”, “totally destroy” to “my good friend”, “smart leader”, Japan has the legitimate reason to feel that the US is not longer the effective spokesperson for Japan. Despite that Abe has urged Trump to take up the abduction issue during his two summits with Kim and Trump promising not to spare any effort to help resolve the matter, Trump not only did not succeed in raising the issue, he even avoided discussions of human rights topics in his meetings with the North Korean leader. Abe seems to have lost confidence with Trump, which is why for him seeking a summit with Kim is hugely important so that he can take up the abduction issue directly without any third party support.
Further, Abe suspects that Trump is more concerned to address America’s vulnerability to North Korean ICBMs while overlooking the threats posed to Japanese territory by North Korea’s short and medium-range missiles. Abe fears that if Trump succeeds striking a deal with Kim, Japan’s interests might be kept aside. Despite such a scenario, Japan cannot afford to take any measure that could displease the US.
Like Trump trying to strike a deal with Kim that could bolster his chance in seeking re-election during campaign in 2020, Abe too could be eyeing a summit with Kim that could bolster his party’s position in the parliamentary elections expected in the next few months. His hard-line stance on North Korea for the past years that he has been in office could help him score points over his domestic political opponents. Domestically he would be seen as a tough negotiator without yielding much concession. Therefore, this kind of internal political dynamics both in the US and Japan may have some bearing while both deal with North Korea. Despite Abe trying much for a summit with Kim, Kim is unlikely to grant him one until probably he gathers some additional prestige and status. Kim would have much to gain in projecting Japan as the natural enemy of the North Korean people who can be easily reminded that Japan’s historical wrongs must be corrected and therefore no concession can be granted easily without substantial price.
One possibility is that Kim might try to extract massive financial benefits and diplomatic recognition in return of dealing with the abduction issue but without progress made on curtailing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Japan is unlikely to comply with such demands. Kim would be wary that a summit with Abe would lead to additional international coverage of the abductee issue, which shall increase Kim’s discomfort. If Kim could be happy in dealing with the US, Russia, South Korea and China and hopes to strike economic deals at appropriate times, Kim would continue to decline dealing with Japan. If Kim could deal with leaders of the US, Russia, China and South Korea directly on equal basis, and with Japan sidelined, the possibility of multilateral diplomacy such as the defunct Six-Party Talks would remain buried in the dustbin of history. Given all the above scenarios and possibilities, a summit with Kim in Abe’s wish-list would remain a mere footnote.