As U.S. President Barack Obama seeks a united front to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, he’s facing an unlikely spoiler: Japan.
Traditionally, China has played this irksome role. The six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program — suspended since 2009 — never got anywhere largely because China refused to put the screws on its ally. No matter how many missiles the Kim Dynasty fired off, how many nuclear tests it conducted, or how many North Koreans starved or ended up in prison camps, China remained convinced that the alternative of a possible regime collapse was worse.
Yet even the Chinese are now fed up with the antics of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Officials in Beijing have openly chastised the North for its provocative behavior and have supported United Nations sanctions against the country. At their one-on-one California summit, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping found more common ground on the issue than ever before. Most dramatically, China Construction Bank Corp. ended business with North Korean lenders Korea Kwangson Banking Corp. and Golden Triangle Bank — a slap across the face for strapped Pyongyang.
Kim’s government has responded with transparent diplomatic ploys, first seeking talks with South Korea — most likely to satisfy Chinese demands — and then with the U.S. As Bradley Martin, author of the book “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader,” says: “I’d be very surprised if this were anything but the usual divide-and-conquer tactics.”
Officials in Seoul and Washington have displayed admirable unity and discipline. For months, they have treated the erratic Kim with benign neglect, refusing to react to his every threat and each unhinged comment by government mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency. The line is consistent: The outside world will not engage with the North until it does something meaningful to halt its nuclear program and returns to talks with denuclearization as the goal.
With both China and Russia — which has its own differences with the Americans over Syria — echoing the same line, Kim faces a narrowing set of options. Yet now, when presenting a united front is more critical than ever, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe threatens to go rogue.
Last month, Abe sent a top aide, Isao Iijima, to Pyongyang for an unannounced four-day trip to meet senior North Korean officials. Iijima hoped to make progress on the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea years ago, and possibly to lay the groundwork for a summit meeting between Abe and Kim. Since then, Japanese officials have hinted that Japan may resume bilateral talks with the North. Abe’s government reportedly plans to elevate a specialist in the abduction issue to the top bureaucratic post in the Foreign Ministry.
“It’s a very amateurish kind of diplomacy,” says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Japan is going to get very little out of it, and it won’t strengthen Japan’s global standing.”
North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s; Japan says North Korea abducted 17 people as part of a plot to train spies. It’s impossible to exaggerate how big an issue this is for Japan’s right wing, a group the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has long coddled. In 2002, Abe himself accompanied Iijima and mentor Junichiro Koizumi, then Japan’s prime minister, to Pyongyang to pursue it.
Privately, Abe advisers argue that resolving the dispute will enable them to join the international community in isolating the Kim regime. Yet even this limited outreach to Pyongyang has already proved a public-relations disaster. The Korean Central News Agency exposed Iijima’s supposedly top-secret trip, gleefully driving a wedge between America and its closest ally in Asia. If Abe persists, he’s sure to alienate not just the Americans but also the Chinese and South Koreans.
“Bad feelings could intensify very quickly if Japan feels emboldened to pursue narrow interests at the expense of global progress,” Dujarric says.
This seems to be developing into a pattern with Abe. When Japan most needs to build bridges to its neighbors, the government remains fixated on parochial issues that fuel regional resentment. Abe’s economic policies have driven down the yen, angering South Korean and Chinese exporters. How have Japanese officials responded? By visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including several convicted war criminals. At a time when markets want to hear about serious structural reforms from Abe, he seems more interested in talking about revising Japan’s pacifist constitution.
A big victory for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in next month’s upper-house elections might allow him to worry less about nurturing his right-wing base. Perhaps then he could start more-serious economic reforms, stop talking about the constitution, and wholeheartedly join the international effort to isolate North Korea.
Or, more likely, a win could embolden Abe and persuade him to visit Yasukuni, possibly even Pyongyang.
This is a dangerous path. Few nations would benefit more from a stable, denuclearized Korean Peninsula than Japan. Its export-focused economy is heavily dependent on the goodwill of its neighbors: China and South Korea alone import some $443 billion worth of Japanese goods annually. If Abe really wants to revive Japan and make the country stable and secure, he had better take a page from Beijing and start working with his neighbors rather than against them.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.