Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was once routinely described as a foreign policy hawk for his nationalist views and unrepentant attitude about Japan’s wartime history. Yet, as he enters the autumn of his premiership (which must end by September 2021), Abe’s desperation for diplomatic achievements has led him to offer key concessions. The danger is that Abe’s hasty pursuit of a legacy makes Japanese foreign policy look unprincipled and weak.
In an interview published on May 2, Abe announced that he is now willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “unconditionally.” This marks a striking policy reversal. Addressing the North Korean nuclear threat in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, Abe warned that, “Again and again, attempts to resolve issues through dialogue have all come to naught. In what hope of success are we now repeating the very same failure a third time? … What is needed to do that is not dialogue, but pressure.”
When the facts change, a wise leader will change their mind. Yet, in this case, there has been no reduction in the threat from North Korea. Indeed, Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines from December 2018 explicitly note that Pyongyang’s military developments still “pose grave and imminent threats to Japan’s security.” Also, despite Kim’s turn to diplomacy in 2018, “There has been no essential change in North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.”
This conclusion was reinforced on May 4 when North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.
The real reason for the policy shift is because Abe believes he has spotted an opportunity. Following the failure of talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February, tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have intensified. The Japanese government hopes that this will force North Korea to look for alternative interlocutors.
In addition to Abe’s proposal to meet Kim “unconditionally,” the Japanese government has signaled its new eagerness to engage by opting in March not to sponsor a UN resolution criticizing Pyongyang’s human rights record. Moreover, in April, previous language about “maximizing pressure on North Korea” was removed from the Foreign Ministry’s 2019 Bluebook.
Evidently Abe does not think that bilateral talks with North Korea can resolve the nuclear issue, which can only be tackled between Washington and Pyongyang. Instead, Abe’s eyes are firmly fixed on the abduction issue.
The abduction issue relates to the fate of Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. The matter was partly resolved in 2002 when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a historic visit to Pyongyang and secured the release of five abductees.
But the issue has long been a political priority for Shinzo Abe and helped bring him to prominence at the start of the 2000s. As deputy chief cabinet secretary in the Koizumi government, he presented himself as the leading champion of the victims’ families. Subsequently, Abe has worked hard to keep public attention focused on this issue and he has never accepted Pyongyang’s insistence that the other 12 alleged Japanese victims are now dead or were never abducted.
Having associated himself so closely with this issue, Abe is determined to emulate Koizumi and secure the release of further individuals before the end of his time in office. This commitment will be welcomed by the victims’ families, yet it makes little sense from the perspective of Japan’s broader national interests.
The suspicion is that Abe is willing to soften Japan’s position on the North Korean nuclear and missile issue, which threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese, in order to pursue a legacy-defining breakthrough in the symbolic, yet relatively unimportant, abductees issue.
Similarly misplaced priorities are notable in Japan’s Russia policy, where Abe has regularly promised to resolve the countries’ territorial dispute and sign a peace treaty before he leaves office. His proposed means of achieving this has been to forge close personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to offer economic incentives, and to moderate Japan’s territorial claims over the Northern Territories (the Southern Kurils in Russian).
The key development was in November 2018 when Abe and Putin agreed to accelerate peace treaty talks based on the 1956 Joint Declaration. Since the document mentions only the two smaller of the four disputed islands, this decision confirms that Abe is willing to settle for a so-called “two plus alpha” agreement which would see Japan regain just 7 percent of the disputed landmass, plus gain the right to conduct joint economic activities on the other islands.
The Abe government has therefore indicated a willingness to relinquish its claim to sovereignty over the two main islands. However, despite this unprecedented concession, Russia’s position has only hardened. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeatedly demanded that Japan recognize Russian sovereignty over all four of the disputed islands and, in February, he stated that the conditions for signing a peace treaty are “entirely lacking.” Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s meeting with Lavrov in Moscow on 10 May also failed to bridge the gap between the sides.
Abe had hoped to sign a framework peace agreement when Putin visits Japan for the G20 in June, but, with those hopes fading, the Japanese leader is doubling down on concessions. Government ministers have been banned from describing the disputed islands as Japan’s “inherent territory” or of describing them as being “illegally occupied,” despite the fact that this remains Japan’s official position. Remarkably, the statement that “the four northern islands belong to Japan” was even removed from the 2019 Diplomatic Bluebook.
As with North Korea, Abe goal is to personally secure a deal with Russia at all costs. The risk is that he may make irreversible concessions that achieve nothing more than Japan’s participation in joint economic projects on the islands. In effect, this means contributing financially to the development of territory that remains under Russian administration.
All leaders seek to augment their legacies during their final months in office, but this must not be done in a way that endangers long-term national interests. By showing himself to be desperate for diplomatic breakthroughs, Abe has put Japan in a weak negotiating position. Moreover, he has sent a message to all countries in the region that Japanese red lines are negotiable.
Before rushing into mistaken agreements, Abe should reflect on the fact that, in some cases, no deal really is better than a bad deal.
James D. J. Brown is Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University, Japan Campus.