While not altogether shocking, the visit of one of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top aides to North Korea last month drew strong criticism from Seoul and raised eyebrows in other capitals, including Washington and Beijing. While the Japanese government has remained coy about the outcomes of the trip, it is clear that the mission’s primary focus was on Abe’s pledge for a permanent resolution to the abduction issue. Abe’s envoy, Isao Iijima, has a history with Pyongyang and was instrumental in facilitating the return of five Japanese abductees during former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s landmark visit to North Korea in 2002.
Thus far, the clandestine trip has sparked more questions than answers. First, was Iijima’s visit a tool for clearing a diplomatic path for a summit meeting between Abe and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un? Second, how much of this trip is aimed at stemming Pyongyang’s recent provocations and vitriolic rhetoric? And, finally – why go for a “rogue” diplomatic approach rather than maintain a united stance alongside South Korea and the United States?
Abe was asked the first question during a session in the Diet shortly after the trip and would not dismiss the possibility of a visit to Pyongyang: “If a summit meeting is deemed as an important means in considering ways to resolve the abduction issue, we must take it into consideration as a matter of course in negotiating with them. Our fundamental objective is to resolve the abduction issue, including the return of all abductees, revelation of the truth and the handover of the perpetrator to Japan.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The fact that Abe is bringing this issue up during a time of heightened tensions with the North is not a complete surprise. While it is true that Abe has traditionally taken a hard-line stance against Pyongyang and especially on the abduction issue, this should not be interpreted as his desire to conduct a policy of containment. On the contrary, Abe’s personal investment in the abduction issue has motivated him to take more pronounced risks with the aim of resolving the long running saga. In fact, during his “Japan is Back” speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this past February, Abe carved out a precious minute of his talk to address the abductions: “Now, if you look at the lapel of my jacket, I put on a blue-ribbon pin. It is to remind myself each and every day that I must bring back the Japanese people who North Korea abducted in the 1970s and ’80s.”
Shortly after Iijima returned, the Asahi Shinbum reported that government sources in Japan had indicated that Tokyo was laying the groundwork for the recommencement of bilateral talks. Tokyo and Pyongyang resumed talks on the abduction issue last August and followed this up with a meeting in Mongolia last November. Abe has strong political incentives to push this agenda ahead of the Upper House elections this summer and amidst a time of increased isolation on the issue of the North’s nuclear weapons program. Perhaps Abe also believes the timing is optimal as Pyongyang appears to be dealing with a weaker hand in light of strained ties with China. Despite this, Abe will likely wait to determine whether the cost-benefit of a Pyongyang summit makes sense after gauging the sincerity of these mid-level exchanges in the coming months.
The answer to the second question seems a bit more straightforward. Iijima’s visit appeared to explicitly avoid further poking of the North for its dangerous rhetoric over the past few months. However, this is not to imply that Abe wishes to disconnect from these issues and retrench behind the US-Korean lead. This brings us to the final question – why take a unilateral approach? There are a few interesting angles here. Abe has taken the position that the diplomacy is focused on a purely bilateral irritant and thus does not directly implicate South Korea and the U.S. This is not entirely true, however, as significant engagement between Japan and North Korea has the potential to upend a coordinated trilateral approach towards Pyongyang’s growing provocations and nuclear weapons program.
South Korea’s reaction to the visit was predictably scornful, labelling the trip as “unhelpful” and detrimental to trilateral efforts. The U.S. struck a less critical – but somewhat disappointed – tone, when their top North Korea envoy Glyn Davies indicated that he was not aware that such a visit was planned. While Seoul’s argument is theoretically true, it also borders on the absurd given that South Korea has consistently scuttled efforts by Washington and Tokyo to elevate such trilateral cooperation into reality.
An Abe-Kim summit could provide spillover benefits to international efforts to curb the North’s provocations with its missiles and nuclear program. But the reality here is that Pyongyang has an agenda too and relished having the opportunity to parade a senior Japanese official around the capital to audiences in the U.S. and Korea (as well as China). Mid-level meetings on the abduction issue are one thing, but Abe should be much more cautious before embarking on a summit visit.