Progress in repairing ties between North and South Korea has prompted concern in Tokyo that Seoul may rush into dialogue with Pyongyang at the expense of the “maximum pressure” campaign espoused by Japan and the United States.
“South Korea might run off ahead on a course of dialogue,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said in the wake of Saturday’s talks in Seoul between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a high-level North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremony a day earlier.
The delegation gave Moon a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inviting him to visit the North, a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he and Moon had reaffirmed their shared stance of maximizing pressure on Pyongyang until it scraps its nuclear weapons program.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters in Saga Prefecture that dialogue between the two Koreas must be “based on the premise that North Korea will change its basic nuclear and missile policies.”
Officials in Tokyo suspect the North is trying to chip away at the united front that groups the U.S. together with its East Asian allies amid biting international sanctions on the hermit country. Tokyo’s focus is now likely to shift to fortifying trilateral cohesion with Seoul and Washington.
The Abe administration remains in favor of maintaining the diplomatic and economic pressure campaign — regardless of the Olympic thaw between the two Koreas. It has argued that yielding to dialogue on North Korea’s terms would effectively equal accepting it as a nuclear power.
“North Korea seems to have no intention of abandoning its nuclear program,” a Japanese government official said.
While Tokyo has not condemned recent talks between the two Koreas insofar as they concern participation in the Pyeongchang Games, it has also warned against North Korea’s “charm offensive.”
North Korea’s overtures to the South have included sending as part of its delegation Kim Yo Jong, the current leader’s younger sister, who is thought to be one of his closest advisers.
“It’s clear to see that Kim Jong Un’s agenda is to get a dialogue offensive underway,” a Japanese government source said.
This sentiment was echoed by a separate source close to the Abe government.
“By sending the sister to South Korea and seeking a visit by the president, North Korea is probably trying to give the impression that it’s taking the lead on dialogue,” the source said.
Still, according to one diplomatic source, some in the Abe administration “would not oppose the very idea of talks” between Moon and Kim “if they would entail (Moon) pressing North Korea to denuclearize.”
But most in the administration, a source close to the Prime Minister’s Office said, feel that “dialogue is meaningless unless North Korea says it will abandon nuclear weapons in a verifiable and irreversible manner.”