Japan is now seeking a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions – even though Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had previously signaled he would agree to one only if Tokyo was assured of progress on the abduction issue.
It is the latest apparent concession by Tokyo to smooth the way for a face-to-face meeting, after it dropped references to maximizing pressure on North Korea in its Diplomatic Bluebook last month. Earlier this year, the Japanese government decided that, for the first time it more than a decade, it would not join with the European Union to present a motion to the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning Pyongyang’s human rights record.
Abe outlined his stance publicly after a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump on May 6. The prime minister emphasized that Tokyo would work with the international community to seek the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and regional stability. Abe noted, however, that Japan’s diplomatic priority – clarifying the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s – would have to be taken up bilaterally. He told reporters:
In order to resolve this abductions issue, we should not miss out any single opportunity and I, myself, have to meet face-to-face with Chairman Kim Jong Un, and meet with him without attaching any conditions. I intend to work to resolve this issue, with the determination that we will not miss out any single opportunity.
Five abductees were repatriated to Japan in 2002, after Junichiro Koizumi, then the Japanese prime minister, met with Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il. Since then, Pyongyang has repeatedly maintained that other suspected victims had either passed away or never entered the country in the first place. Tokyo, however, does not trust these claims and argues that more Japanese abductees may still be alive in North Korea. “The ultimate goal, I think, is fairly clear: we would like to get everybody back as soon as possible,” an official from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at a press briefing.
Ever since Trump’s first summit meeting with Kim in Singapore in June 2018, Abe has said that he, too, would be prepared to meet with the North Korean leader. However, it had been understood that Tokyo would require some assurance of progress on the abduction issue. Consistent with that, Abe told the UN General Assembly in September 2018 that if a summit were to be held, “then I am determined it must be a meeting that contributes to the resolution of the abductions issue.”
However, Japan has found itself increasingly isolated in the wake of North Korea’s diplomatic offensive, launched last year. While Kim has pressed his position in direct talks with the leaders of the United States, China, South Korea, and Russia, he has not yet met with Abe. This means North Korea’s leader has met since 2018 with the leader of every member of the previous Six-Party Talks except for Japan.
That has left Japan to seek the support of others, including Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, to convey its position to the regime, particularly on the issue of abductions. However, there are limits to that outreach when each country has its own diplomatic priorities, as Abe has recognized by taking a step toward bilateral talks. Pyongyang, meanwhile, has sent chilly signals through state media. In March 2019, after the collapse of the Trump and Kim’s second summit in Hanoi, North Korean media faulted Japan for having the U.S. president raise the abduction issue on its behalf. The Rodong Sinmun suggested that Tokyo “must not dream of dealing with” North Korea without making “full reparation for its past crimes” during its occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
Abe has now made clear that he wants to hold “frank discussions” with Kim “at the earliest possible date.” Elaborating on his approach in an interview with the Sankei Shimbun, Abe said it was “most important that Japan takes its own initiative to tackle this problem.” The prime minister added that it was “a cause of extreme anguish” to him that Japan had been unable to secure the return of any abductee since 2002.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said Abe’s comments about a summit without conditions reflected “more clearly” his determination to end mutual distrust and resolve the nuclear, missile and abduction issues. Suga traveled to the United States late last week to discuss North Korea-related developments with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. The United States and Japan reaffirmed their “commitment to the final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea, read a statement issued by the U.S. State Department following the meeting between Pompeo and Suga on May 9.
Suga traveled to Washington D.C. and New York just as news was breaking of North Korea’s second test of weapons in the space of less than a week. The two projectiles launched by the Kim regime on May 9 were short-range ballistic missiles, according to an assessment by the Japanese government. Tokyo has condemned the launches, believing that Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between the United States and its regional allies Japan and South Korea. All the same, the Japanese government has not backed away from its push to explore having a summit meeting with Kim.
Asked whether Washington had suggested that Tokyo drop its preconditions for a summit meeting, a Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said at a press briefing: “I won’t go into detail on what was actually discussed over the phone [between Trump and Abe], but I should say that we’re in very close touch with the U.S. at all levels and basically when we do make any decision of any kind I think we would be first talking to the Americans and vice versa.”
Tokyo would explore the prospects of dialogue with North Korea through various channels, including the so-called Beijing Channel (via the Japanese embassy in Beijing), officials said.