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Japan says it won’t fall for North Korean ‘charm offensive’ amid detente with U.S. and South

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Tokyo — undeterred by possible signs of Washington and Seoul gravitating toward dialogue with Pyongyang — said Tuesday that it has no intention of backing down from its hard-line policy of heaping “maximum pressure” on the isolated regime of Kim Jong Un.

Asked if Japan was willing to recalibrate its policy on North Korea to help clear a path for dialogue with the nuclear-armed country, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking at a regular news conference, reiterated that “dialogue for dialogue’s sake is meaningless” and that Tokyo will remain committed to “making the North change its policy by maximizing pressure through every possible measure.”

Suga’s comments, which came amid burgeoning signs of Olympic-driven detente on the Korean Peninsula, risk making Tokyo appear at odds with Washington and Seoul — its two top allies in dealing with the North. Both separately indicated their willingness to talk with the regime after the Winter Olympics kicked off last Friday in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.

Signs of Pyongyang’s “charm offensive,” as termed by Tokyo, were evident Tuesday as its supreme leader served up a rare compliment of its neighbor’s “impressive” effort to “prioritize” hosting the visit of his country’s delegation to the Winter Games.

In a statement released by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency, Kim expressed his “thanks” to the South and stressed the importance of “further livening up the warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue” created by the two Koreas.

Suga, however, said the gushing words were not fooling Tokyo.

Noting that Pyongyang had staged a military parade just a day ahead of the games’ opening last week and showcased four types of ballistic missiles it had test-fired last year, the top government spokesman said: “This is the reality of North Korea. We cannot fall for its charm offensive.”

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, too, offered words of caution in Tokyo.

“If North Korea is trying to use the Olympics for political purposes and ease international sanctions against itself, we must not be swayed,” he said at a regular news conference.

Japanese officials are concerned that Pyongyang could drive a wedge between the U.S.-South Korea alliance by easing tension with Seoul and emphasizing ethnic ties with their rival throughout the Olympics.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was quoted Saturday by local media as welcoming a rare invitation extended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the weekend to visit Pyongyang at the “earliest date possible.”

The invitation, verbally delivered during the games to Moon by his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, raised the prospect of what could become the first intra-Korean summit meeting in more than a decade.

Moon, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency, responded to Pyongyang’s proposal by saying “let us make it happen by creating the necessary conditions in the future.”

Washington has also shown signs it might also be softening — if only slightly — its stance on Pyongyang.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview published Sunday by The Washington Post that while the White House will forge ahead with its pressure campaign, it might also endorse deeper engagement between the two Koreas that could lead to direct Washington-Pyongyang talks.

Pence was quoted as calling the shift “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.”

Tuesday also marked the first time that top officials in Tokyo, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, publicly responded to the flurry of diplomatic activity that has unfolded over the last few days.

Speaking to the Lower House Budget Committee, Abe characterized his own trip to the South for the Olympics’ opening ceremony as “meaningful,” claiming that he had successfully conveyed firsthand Japan’s position on a variety of issues to officials from both north and south of the 38th parallel.

Regarding his meeting with Moon, Abe revealed that he had urged his South Korean counterpart to overcome a lingering backlash against the 2015 “comfort women” deal among South Koreans and follow through on the promise his predecessor had made with Tokyo.

“I told President Moon Jae-in that I myself was bombarded with harsh criticism when I decided to strike” the 2015 agreement with Seoul that “finally and irreversibly” put to rest the long-festering issue of comfort women — a euphemism for mostly Asian women forced to provide sex at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

“And I told him that, in the world of diplomacy, a leader sometimes has to make a decision at the risk of exposing himself to criticism in order to build future-oriented relationships,” Abe said.

On North Korea, Abe claimed that he and Moon both shared the recognition that Japan, South Korea and the U.S. must “closely coordinate” their push to maximize pressure on the regime.

Acknowledging his brief conversation with North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, Abe also told the committee that he “strongly urged” the country to take steps toward resolving the long-standing issue of Japanese nationals kidnapped by the regime decades ago. Specifically, Abe said he had called for a “return of all abductees.”