President Donald Trump spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week after the latter offered to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un without preconditions, a considerable political risk given Abe’s previous focus on resolving the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea before any such talks could occur.
Abe’s softening stance toward North Korea comes as Japanese relations with South Korea are deteriorating due to even older issues that stretch back to World War II.
Abe and his administration have relentlessly pursued the abduction issue, pressing U.S. President Donald Trump to cover it during his own summit with Kim and framing it as a precondition for improved relations with Pyongyang in every other context.
Abe’s offer to meet Kim without conditions, delivered through an interview with a Japanese newspaper last week, was framed as an attempt to break the diplomatic stalemate and revitalize negotiations with North Korea.
Abe said he wanted to “break the current mutual distrust” between Japan and North Korea by talking with Kim. He is currently the only major regional leader who has not held a summit with the North Korean dictator.
“That’s why I would like to meet him without setting preconditions and hold frank discussions. I hope he’s a leader who can determine flexibly and strategically what is best for his country,” Abe said.
The Japanese believe North Korea kidnapped 17 of their citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. Five of them were repatriated, leaving the fate of the other 12 in doubt. The North Koreans refuse to admit to some of the kidnappings and claim other abductees died in captivity.
Observers of the Japanese political scene believe Abe is taking a considerable risk by meeting with Kim and courting political disaster at home if he returns with anything less than a full accounting for the missing abductees and the release of those who are still alive.
A possible mitigating factor would be if North Korea comes clean about Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped by North Korea at the age of 13 in 1977 and is seen in Japan as a symbol of the abduction issue. North Korea has claimed Yokota is long dead, but many Japanese doubt those claims and would be euphoric if she was returned.
A former Japanese diplomat told Reuters on Wednesday that Abe could be making a mistake by pursuing a summit with Kim instead of patching up wobbly relations with South Korea and its President Moon Jae-in:
The outreach comes amid Japan’s frosty ties with South Korea due to intensifying rows over their wartime history, including Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean peninsula.
“Abe seems to be keener to talk to Kim than to (South Korean President) Moon (Jae-in),” said one former Japanese diplomat who declined to be identified because the matter is sensitive.
“He should be doing the opposite: reach out to Moon … and ignore Kim for the sake of rebuilding trilateral unity vis-a-vis North Korea.”
Japan and South Korea have recently quarreled over a number of peripheral economic and cultural matters, but the underlying issue is a long-running dispute over Japanese compensation for forced labor during its occupation of Korea in World War II. The Japanese feel they settled the issue with concessions made several years ago, but South Korean courts subsequently ordered some Japanese companies to pay claims for forced labor from the war era, infuriating and alarming Japan as more claims against its companies were quickly filed. Abe’s government went as far as threatening to seize South Korean corporate assets in Japan if Japanese companies are forced to pay the South Korean claims.
A related dispute concerns the “comfort women,” Korean women forced into prostitution by Japanese forces during the war. Again, the Japanese believed the matter was comprehensively settled with a 2015 agreement and were enraged when Moon’s administration moved to dismantle the deal.
Despite these travails, South Korea’s new Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo sounded an optimistic note on Wednesday, pointing to the high volume of trade and tourism between Japan and South Korea as signs of the enduring relationship between the two nations.
North Korea was also optimistic, or at least as optimistic as it ever gets. A few months ago, state-controlled media in the communist tyranny denounced the Japanese as “dwarfs clinging to the coattail of the U.S.,” accused them of sabotaging the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim by insisting Trump bring up the abduction issue, and insisted Japan would have to pay Pyongyang some sort of “reparations” before a meeting between Abe and Kim would be possible.
After Abe floated his offer of unconditional talks, however, North Korean sources spoke of Kim’s desire to establish better ties with Abe – perhaps as a means of disrupting unity between Japan, South Korea, and the United States, as the former diplomat who spoke to Reuters feared. The North Koreans are reportedly interesting in exploiting Abe’s friendly relationship with Trump but are still determined to avoid the abduction issue, even though giving ground on the abductions might be the ideal way to win diplomatic support from Abe.
North Korea’s intransigence on the issue may be due to concerns that if it gives ground on the dozen Japanese abductees of immediate concern to Abe, it will be pressed to admit to far more abductions of Japanese and others, possibly ranging into the hundreds of thousands over the years. Some Japanese believe that hundreds of additional disappearances in Japan might have been the work of North Korean agents.