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Abe-Kim summit: The real deal or thinly veiled diversion?

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Tokyo is seeking a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Japanese media said Wednesday, prompting speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scrambling to devise ways to deflect public attention away from an ongoing document-tampering scandal that threatens to significantly erode his grip on power.

Some media outlets, including Kyodo News and Jiji Press, reported Wednesday that the Abe administration is now “exploring the possibility” of holding a summit meeting with Kim — a scenario that, if true, would represent a drastic break from the prime minister’s long-held position against dialogue with Pyongyang.

The Kyodo report, quoting an unnamed high-ranking official at Abe’s office, said the government believes “direct dialogue with the top — Mr. Kim Jong Un — is essential” if Japan were to achieve the historic return of its citizens spirited away by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, though, has been noncommittal on the prospect, neither denying nor acknowledging the possibility of Tokyo ever reaching out to Pyongyang for a diplomatic breakthrough.

“We’re aware of those reports, but we will refrain from issuing any comment,” he told a regular news conference Wednesday, repeating his assertion from a day earlier that Tokyo will “decide what step to take from the perspective of what is most effective.”

Atsuhito Isozaki, an associate professor and a North Korea expert at Keio University, said Tokyo’s reported shift toward talks with Kim can only be interpreted as a thinly veiled attempt to divert the public attention from the resurgence of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, which has fueled calls for the head of Abe’s longtime ally, Finance Minister Taro Aso.

A similar view was echoed by Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare, who pointed out that Abe has trumpeted his hardline attitude toward the North and his airtight alliance with Washington in an apparent bid to bolster his popularity.

But now that Kim’s landmark meetings with both South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump are virtually certain, Tokyo is increasingly appearing as the odd man out, “possibly leaving the public frustrated that Abe’s diplomacy is alienating Japan,” Kawakami said.

“Such public misgivings, when combined with the Moritomo scandal, could deal a dual blow to Abe,” he said. “My guess is that the Abe administration is sending out a signal that it is ready to meet Kim so it won’t get left behind by the U.S. and South Korea and miss the boat.”

Experts, meanwhile, are split over whether a summit meeting between Tokyo and Pyongyang is even possible.

The feasibility of a potential Abe-Kim meeting has been severely compromised by Abe’s own heavy dependence on sanctions against Pyongyang to date, as well as a recent thaw in inter-Korean relations that has, in turn, made Tokyo “less valuable” to Kim, according to Keio University’s Isozaki.

“The North understands there is a latent advantage to normalizing ties with Japan, because it would result in the inflow of massive funds to the regime,” the professor said.

“But now that it is increasingly confident that it can elicit financial assistance from Seoul and may even be able to reach a breakthrough with Washington, it sees less value in Japan,” he said, adding that things are different from 2002, when the first summit meeting between Tokyo and Pyongyang was held under the administration of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Back then, the North still saw Tokyo as a potential bridge to Washington.

What’s worse, Abe’s persistent inclination to rely on “maximum-pressure” tactics has likely left the Kim regime hostile to Tokyo to such an extent that it is unwilling to hold talks with the current administration, Ishozaki said.

“Instead of hurriedly seeking direct dialogue with Kim, Japan could volunteer to offer a venue for the upcoming Trump-Kim meeting in order to remain a player” and have a realistic chance of moving forward with the abductee issue, he said.

But according to Hajime Izumi, a professor of international studies at Tokyo International University, the Abe-Kim meeting may not be as unrealistic as it may sound.

He said Kim will likely see “plenty of incentive” in holding talks with Abe on condition that the 2014 bilateral agreement in Stockholm, in which the North promised to launch a full-scale investigation into Japanese abductees, is reactivated.

“Under the pact, the governments vowed to settle their unfortunate past and aim to normalize diplomatic ties,” Izumi said. “That’s exactly what the North wants.”