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How Likely Is a Japan-North Korea Summit?

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How Likely Is a Japan-North Korea Summit?

Unless Japan can truly offer progress on Pyongyang’s vital concerns, a bilateral summit is unlikely to materialize.

How Likely Is a Japan-North Korea Summit?
Credit: Depositphotos

The door to summit talks between North Korea and Japan was initially opened with a statement from Kim Yo Jong, vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the sister of top leader Kim Jong Un. In the statement, published by the Korean Central News Agency in February, Kim Yo Jong claimed that there was no reason for the two countries not to become closer, as long as Tokyo did not worsen the inherent obstacles in Japan-North Korea relations, particularly the abduction issue

In fact, bilateral relations have been stalled for decades over this issue, considered one of the biggest conundrums precluding the diplomatic normalization process between the two countries. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA), 17 Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, North Korea has explicitly affirmed that only 13 people were kidnapped, of which five were returned in 2002 and eight had passed away by that time. 

Thus, Pyongyang considers that the issue of kidnapped Japanese citizens was resolved during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro to Pyongyang in September 2002. However, Japanese officials not only believe that North Korea is lying about the number of abductions, but question whether the remaining victims have actually died. Thus, Japan continues to raise the issue whenever North Korea policy is discussed. 

In a press statement released on March, 25, Kim Yo Jong revealed that Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio had offered an official meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. However, she emphasized that the prerequisites of this meeting had not been met, saying that “it is impossible to improve the bilateral relations full of distrust and misunderstanding, only with an idea to set out on a summit meeting.” 

An update carried by the KCNA on the following day confirmed that North Korea would “pay no attention to and reject any contact and negotiations with the Japanese side.”

Despite the apparent rejection from North Korea, Kishida discussed his attempts to improve the bilateral relations in remarks before the Japanese Diet. He stressed the importance of top-level meetings for resolving the abduction problem and said that “various initiatives are being made at a direct level.”

Why is Kishida so interested in holding a summit with Kim? According to expert analysis, Kishida needs a diplomatic breakthrough to change the bleak trajectory of his premiership, which has been plagued by domestic scandals. The approval rating of his Cabinet dipped to a dismal 20.1 percent in February 2024, right when public discussion of a Kim-Kishida summit ramped up. North Korea seems to agree with this analysis; Kim Yo Jong’s March statement claimed that Kishida was not serious about improving Japan-North Korea ties but only seeking a summit in a “bid for popularity.”

Another potential motivation for Kishida is that inter-Korean relations are facing serious challenges during South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s term, and North Korea-U.S. relations are relatively deadlocked. Meanwhile, the threat from a series of North Korean ballistic missile tests, particularly the April 2 test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile equipped with a hypersonic warhead, has pressured the United States and its allies. 

Japan, as one of the United States’ traditional allies, intends to take advantage of this chaos as a chance to showcase its “bridging role” in terms of conflict mediation. Kishida may hope to reinforce regional peace and stability, similar to South Korea’s efforts under former President Moon Jae-in. 

Additionally, Japan’s diplomatic outreach toward North Korea also bolsters Japan-U.S. engagement, fortifying U.S. support for Kishida’s foreign policy. During Kishida’s state visit to Washington, D.C., U.S. President Joe Biden explicitly encouraged efforts at dialogue between U.S. allies and North Korea. “I have faith in Japan. I have faith in the prime minister. And I think his seeking a dialogue with them [North Korea] is a good thing.  It’s a positive thing,” Biden declared.

However, the North Korean issue is not easy to settle. Unlike the North Korea-U.S. or inter-Korean relations, the Japan-North Korea relationship lacks key dynamics that could be leveraged to bring them closer in a more positive way. The problems between two sides also do not necessarily attract enough attention from the leaders to promote a settlement or a summit. Thus, the North Korean side has repeatedly expressed disinterest in the Japanese stance. 

Kishida considers the abduction issue and missile tests to be key issues in bilateral relations, and called for top-level talks between Japan and North Korea leaders to resolve these problems. However, these are the very issues Kim Yo Jong said that Japan would have to drop in order to secure a summit. In North Korea’s eyes, Japan is “clinging to the unattainable issues which can never be settled and have nothing to be settled.”

North Korea seems content to focus on consolidating relationships with China and Russia rather than improving relations with Japan. After the Hanoi summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un fell apart in 2019, North Korea has built close cooperative ties with Russia and China, aiming at creating a counterweight to the Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral. North Korea and China are facing allegations of supporting Russia in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. As reported by Western media, thousands of containers of military equipment and ammunition were shipped from Pyongyang to Moscow, while China is believed to have continued to supply Russia with dual-use goods despite international sanctions. 

On April 11, China sent its highest-ranking delegation to North Korea since the pandemic, led by the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Zhao Leji. The diplomatic outreach further strengthened the China-North Korea connection in particular and the triangular relationship in general. 

In stark contrast, Japan values its alliance with the United States and the growing trilateral cooperation with South Korea as crucial for ensuring Japanese security. In his speech to the U.S. Congress on April 11, Kishida accentuated the trilateral cooperation and referred to North Korea’s provocations as a “direct threat” causing regional instability.  

Some analysts have argued that North Korea left open the opportunity to tighten engagement with Japan in order to weaken the Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral alliance and isolate Seoul from its allies in the region. However, the latest diplomatic moves show that there is little, if any, momentum for a summit between the North Korean and Japanese leaders. North Korea still maintains a disinterested, “wait-and-see” approach based on the latest statements from Kim Yo Jong.

Meanwhile Japan, despite Kishida’s expressed desire to engage with North Korea, still prioritizes the relationship with the United States and tightens the strategic triangle with the U.S. and South Korea. Furthermore, far from driving a wedge between the allies, the U.S. has shown its support for Japan’s rapprochement with North Korea. In a statement at the White House on March 12, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan underscored the “synergies” among three countries’ cooperation and approved of Kishida’s “principled diplomacy” toward Pyongyang. In other words, the triangular relationship is unlikely to be broken due to Kishida’s outreach to North Korea.

When it comes to a Kim-Kishida summit, the potential will become more noticeable if North Korea were to take more concrete moves instead of maintaining its uncommitted status. In addition, Kishida and Chairman Kim Jong Un should seek “common interests” to attract each other. 

So far, even if Japan is willing to talk with North Korea without preconditions, the issues on the agenda do not pique Pyongyang’s interest. There is little Japan can offer to North Korea. Sanctions from the United Nations have hindered prospects for bilateral economic cooperation, and Japan has no power to lift those restrictions on its own. On the other hand, if North Korea demands that Japan accept the reality of its nuclear development and abandon the abduction issue as prerequisites for talks, it will be a huge challenge for the Kishida government. 

Kishida’s support rate is still low, and he needs a diplomatic push to regain trust from the Japanese people, but North Korea is truly a conundrum. Unless Japan can offer progress on Pyongyang’s vital concerns – for example, demonstrating its role as a “bridge” connecting the United States and North Korea, as South Korea’s President Moon once did – a bilateral summit is unlikely to materialize.