The meetings Japanese leaders held this week with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Tokyo revealed subtle differences in their approaches to North Korea’s provocations, with Washington leaning toward dialogue to defuse tensions and Tokyo toward staying firm.
The differences are even more apparent between Tokyo and Seoul, which has sought direct dialogue with Pyongyang.
“Our choice is to negotiate,” Kerry said Sunday after meeting with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. “Our choice is to move to the table and find a way for the region to have peace. And we would hope . . . that they would come to the table in a responsible way and negotiate that.”
But on Monday, after agreeing to work closely in responding to the provocations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Kerry: “You mentioned dialogue, but we have been betrayed by North Korea before. I don’t want you to forget that,” a source with knowledge of their conversation said.
The former Massachusetts senator also praised South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s offer Friday to resume dialogue with the North, saying her offer “should be welcomed.”
Kerry’s attitude toward Pyongyang was “more conciliatory than we had imagined,” a government source said in Tokyo.
At Sunday’s news conference, Kishida said that Tokyo is demanding a “comprehensive resolution” of issues concerning Pyongyang, including its nuclear and missile programs and a new investigation into the whereabouts of Japanese abducted by the North’s agents in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Japan has not closed the door on dialogue with North Korea in order to resolve this issue. And for this reason, North Korea must show that it is truly working toward resolving this issue in good faith,” he said.
Worries on the Japanese side were also amplified by Kerry’s suggestion during his visit to Seoul that the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises under way on the Korean Peninsula have been scaled back out of concern for the North, which decries the annual drills.
Kerry’s remarks “can be taken to mean that the United States has conceded to North Korean intimidation,” a source close to Japanese-U.S. relations said, adding Washington’s overtures may have set a “bad precedent” of backing down from escalating tensions.
The Abe government’s noticeably cautious attitude toward dialogue is rooted in the abduction issue, which may become a footnote amid the focus on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, a Japanese government source said.
In his meeting with Kerry, Abe repeated his determination to resolve the abduction issue while in office.
Meanwhile, Washington appears partially motivated by concerns that the situation on the Korean Peninsula could spin out of control over misunderstandings with the North. In a sign of its shift to a more conciliatory approach, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama postponed the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile scheduled for April 9 to avoid the appearance of further provocations.
The United States is also seeking to strengthen cooperation with China, as the North’s longtime patron appears increasingly impatient with Pyongyang. Kerry praised Beijing for making what he said was a “strong statement of its commitment” to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.
Amid signs that the U.S. and China may be getting closer, Japan is uncertain how effectively it will be able to push its views should the stalled multilateral talks on denuclearizing North Korea resume.