Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will ask South Korean President Moon Jae-in for support in evacuating Japanese citizens if a contingency breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, government sources said.
The decision reflects Japan’s concern that escalating tensions could lead to a military clash between Washington and Pyongyang, possibly after the Winter Games conclude in Pyeongchang, the sources said Friday.
Although tensions have briefly eased in the run-up to the sporting extravaganza, speculation is growing in the Japanese government that North Korea could take action once the United States and South Korea resume joint military drills after the Paralympics conclude on March 18, the sources said.
Abe will pay a two-day visit to South Korea and hold talks with Moon on the sidelines of the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang on Friday. It is unclear how Moon might respond. The two are expected to meet for 45 minutes in a hotel near the venue. Abe plans to explain why he feels an evacuation plan is urgently needed and to propose the start of working-level negotiations possibly involving the United States and other countries, the sources said.
Moon is believed to be trying to use sports events to show the international community that tensions with the North are easing. The two Koreas have agreed to march together under a unified Korean flag at the Olympics’ opening ceremony and form a unified women’s ice hockey team.
The Foreign Ministry estimates roughly 38,000 Japanese were residing in South Korea as of October 2016.
“For the safety of the Japanese people, I will firmly request South Korea’s cooperation,” Abe told the Upper House budget committee on Wednesday.
Abe has said other possible topics include trilateral cooperation with the United States to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the 2015 agreement with South Korea on the “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japan’s wartime military brothels.
Tokyo has studied emergency plans to send chartered planes to Seoul and other cities and transport Japanese by land to the southern port city of Busan, where ships would take them to the Japanese mainland via the island of Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture.
Many in the government believe that Self-Defense Force destroyers and aircraft, as well as the U.S. military, would be needed to transport large numbers of Japanese.
Tokyo has told Seoul it would like to discuss the possibility of dispatching SDF personnel to South Korea for evacuations.
With just a week before the Olympics, U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to pressure Pyongyang further over its nuclear arms program by consulting with allies and highlighting the human rights abuses raised by defectors.
Trump hosted about a half-dozen North Korean defectors in the Oval Office on Friday, including Ji Seong-ho, who used crutches to escape the reclusive country after a train ran over his limbs. Days earlier, Ji raised his crutches in triumph when Trump singled him out during his State of the Union address. Trump called the defectors “great people that have suffered incredibly.”
Trump also called Moon and Abe the same day to ask them to keep up the pressure. He suggested that the recent communication between North and South Korea was a positive development.
“They are in dialogue, at least as it concerns the Olympics, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said.
He avoided some of the inflammatory rhetoric he has used previously, including threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on the rogue nation and dubbing their leader “Little Rocket Man.”
North Korea has not tested a missile since November, and resumed inter-Korean dialogue in January, leading to the agreement on its participation in the games and easing tensions.
Trump has said he is willing to deal with the rising tensions through diplomacy but has also said the United States would use military force if needed. He declared the standoff with the rogue regime “a tricky situation” and again blamed previous administrations for letting the crisis linger for decades.
“We have no road left, so we’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “We’re going to find out how it goes. But we think the Olympics will go very nicely, and after that, who knows? We’ll find out. We’ll find out pretty soon, I suspect.”