On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that he would travel to the United States in April to meet with U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
Abe’s remarks came after the unexpected announcement on Thursday evening, delivered by South Korea’s national security adviser in Washington, D.C., that U.S. President Donald Trump had accepted an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a summit.
Such a summit would be the first of its kind between a sitting U.S. leader and his North Korean counterpart. The two countries have no diplomatic relations and have traded threats for years.
For the Abe administration, the United States’ willingness to enter a summit with Kim Jong-un — without a fixed agenda or even venue — is a difficult development.
Tokyo has stuck by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach toward the country, which emphasized the application and expansion of international sanctions while engaging with countries in Asia and around the world to better implement their sanctions enforcement obligations.
In February, Abe and Trump resolved to maintain pressure on North Korea. Now, with the Trump administration moving forward with a diplomatic opening largely brokered by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration, Japan risks being sidelined.
Tokyo sees North Korea as its primary, near-term security threat. The challenge from North Korea’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles became painfully clear for Tokyo in 2017, when, for the first time, North Korea launched two Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japanese territory and into the northern Pacific Ocean.
North Korea had previously launched satellite launch vehicles over Japan and launched ballistic missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, but this was the first time that a nuclear-capable missile had overflown Japanese territory.
Japan’s predicament is complicated by South Korea’s forward-leaning engagement with the United States over the North Korean issue following the inter-Korean rapprochement that began with the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
While Japan and the United States are allies, like South Korea and the United States, there is no trilateral alliance between these countries. Seoul and Tokyo have joined Washington in burgeoning trilateral cooperation on intelligence-sharing and ballistic missile defense with regard to North Korea, but Tokyo and Seoul have found it difficult to coordinate a bilateral approach. This is in part due to a general decline Japan-South Korea bilateral relations over the past six months.
When Abe comes to Washington, D.C., he will seek to influence the agenda for the upcoming summit, with the ultimate aim of seeing that Trump adheres to accepting no outcome short of a commitment to denuclearization. He will also seek U.S. understanding of Japan’s interests on the Peninsula, including the long-running issue of Japanese abductees.
South Korean officials have offered assurances that Kim Jong-un has said that denuclearization will be on the table in any upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit, but neither the North Korean leader nor the country’s state media have subsequently emphasized this point.