National / Politics

Analysis: Abe's aggressive approach to North Korea succeeds at the U.N., for now

by Sophie Jackman

Kyodo

At a U.N. General Assembly dominated by debate over how to tackle the threat from North Korea, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was successful in securing support — particularly from U.S. President Donald Trump — for Japan’s stance of “pressure, not dialogue,” analysts say.

Trump’s explicit mention in his speech of the North’s abduction of Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s was a major demonstration of the closeness between the two leaders.

But while the united front will likely give Abe a boost at home as he prepares to call a snap election, divisions in the international community on what to do about North Korea are likely to be exposed again soon by Pyongyang’s next moves.

At the annual gathering in New York, Abe devoted almost his entire speech to North Korea, saying history shows that Pyongyang only uses direct talks to “deceive” its dialogue partners and buy more time to develop weapons.

While Trump’s speech grabbed headlines for his warning that the United States would “completely destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies, he extended his outrage to the 1977 abduction of “sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl” Megumi Yokota, who has become symbolic of the abductees’ plight.

This surely reflects efforts by the Abe administration to “tug on (Trump’s) heartstrings” about an element of the North Korea issue that is usually overshadowed by the drama of nuclear arms, said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Hawaii.

Abe has long described North Korea as a three-pronged threat, calling for the resolution of “the abduction, nuclear and missile issues” whenever Pyongyang makes a fresh move.

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3 and its repeated ballistic missile launches in recent months have been the impetus for constant communication between Tokyo and Washington, including repeated teleconferences between the leaders.

Glosserman called Abe’s relationship with Trump “the gold standard — in terms of getting on side with the president of the United States, probably no one has come closer than him.”

That closeness reflects the Abe administration’s concerns that Trump’s foreign policy is still far from fixed, Glosserman said.

Creating a strong link between North Korea and Japan in Trump’s mind is an attempt to mitigate the risk that he could be swayed by a third party’s mediation of a deal with Pyongyang, potentially leaving Japan in the cold, he said.

Despite the pledge of coordination on North Korea at a trilateral summit Thursday between Abe, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, distance remains between Tokyo and Seoul.

A thaw with the North was part of the platform that got Moon elected in May, and his U.N. speech struck a more hopeful tone than either Abe’s or Trump’s, emphasizing the need for North Korea to enter into dialogue and choose peace on its own.

Moon may have been making his own personal appeal to Trump by quoting former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, one of Trump’s heroes.

The Abe administration bristled at South Korea’s decision Thursday to send humanitarian aid to North Korea through U.N. agencies, with Japanese officials quoting Abe as having “called for South Korea to act with caution” in the three-way summit.

“Japan will avoid overt criticism of South Korea’s aid move to give the impression of a harmonious three-way relationship with the United States, while being quite frank with Seoul behind the scenes that it’s not happy,” said Yasuhiro Izumikawa, professor of the Faculty of Policy Studies at Chuo University in Tokyo.

Izumikawa said Japan has done what it can to advance its interests for the time being, with the next step on North Korea likely hinging on the unpredictable backroom discussions between the United States and China.

A compromise with China is thought to have been behind the U.S. decision not to insist on a total oil embargo in the latest U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution on North Korea. The resolution instead caps the country’s oil supply and targets its sources of foreign currency.

China appeared to heed Washington’s call Thursday, with Trump expressing gratitude for what he said was the Chinese central bank’s decision to order commercial banks to stop doing business with North Korea.

“The U.S. government still has various cards up its sleeve to intensify pressure on North Korea, but the key factor behind how and when it will do so is the likely effect on China,” Izumikawa said.

In the meantime, Abe is widely expected to dissolve the House of Representatives at the start of an extraordinary session this week, calling a general election.

“The thinking of Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party is that security concerns fueled by North Korea will overshadow a series of political scandals that arose in the summer,” Izumikawa said.

The election would also take advantage of weakness in Japan’s opposition parties, with the main Democratic Party hemorrhaging members and a new movement linked to popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike still in its fledgling stage.

Abe needs to take care to avoid perceptions he is exploiting the North Korea tensions for political gain, Izumikawa said.

But with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho suggesting Thursday that Pyongyang could retaliate at Trump’s U.N. speech by detonating a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean, the threat may not need any embellishing.

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