Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that Tokyo has been communicating with Pyongyang through “various means” on the possibility of meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while also voicing a positive note about the prospects of opening a three-way dialogue involving Washington.
Abe’s remarks during an Upper House Budget Committee session came on the heels of recent media reports saying Tokyo had conveyed to Pyongyang Abe’s willingness to hold talks with Kim, in the hope of making headway on the long-stalled abduction issue concerning Japanese taken by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.
The return of all abduction victims has been one of Abe’s top political goals.
The reported diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, if true, signals a significant break from Abe’s adherence to the “maximum pressure” campaign against Kim’s regime — although some experts have called the move a not-so-subtle attempt to deflect public attention away from the unfolding Moritomo Gakuen document-tampering scandal.
“We have been communicating with North Korea through various means, including using embassy channels in Beijing, but I will refrain from revealing any further details,” Abe said in a carefully crafted response to a question about a potential Abe-Kim meeting by Ichita Yamamoto, a member of the prime minister’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Abe also emphasized that he was not ruling out the possibility of Tokyo ever holding a trilateral summit with Pyongyang and Washington, although he acknowledged the feasibility of such a diplomatic breakthrough remained virtually nil for the immediate future.
Abe’s comments came during a debate with Democratic Party lawmaker Shinkun Haku, who suggested that the prime minister, upon possibly meeting Trump next month in the United States to discuss North Korea, volunteer to accompany the president to his meeting with Kim, which is to take place before the end of May.
Noting that it is unclear how committed Trump is to convincing Kim to return the abductees, Haku said Abe should consider “direct negotiations” with Kim instead.
“If you suggest to President Trump that you’re willing to accompany him to Pyongyang, the president may listen to you and say, ‘Well, if Shinzo says so’ . . . You two can work as a team” in dealing with Kim, Haku said.
Abe has tried hard to build a strong rapport with Trump since he was elected, frequently talking up the two countries’ “unprecedentedly strong” alliance under the his administration.
Responding to Haku’s question, Abe said it remains “diplomatically inconceivable” that he would try to force his way into the Trump-Kim dialogue, which is already in the works.
“Attending the Washington-Pyongyang summit will make it a trilateral meeting including Japan,” Abe said. “Unfortunately, North Korea has shown no indication at all that it is willing to do that, so I don’t think it’s possible at the moment.”
Japan, Abe added, can’t risk embarking on such a gamble unless there is a reasonable sign Pyongyang is willing to repatriate the abductees.
But at the same time, he said he was “not ruling out the possibility of a Japan-U.S.-North Korea summit meeting. We have to explore a variety of necessary options to solve serious issues we have with North Korea, including the abductions.”
DP lawmaker Haku’s suggestion that Abe’s personal relationship with Trump may work in Japan’s advantage follows Trump’s announcement last week that Japan won’t be excluded from the steel and aluminium tariffs that took effect Friday.
That move was widely seen as a slap in the face to Japan after Abe’s effort to cultivate a close relationships with the mercurial U.S. president.
“Your usual claim that Japan and U.S. are ‘100 percent together’ sounds a bit hollow right now. I’m sure I’m not the only who thinks that,” Tetsuro Fukuyama of the Constitutional Democratic Party told Abe.
Japan is also increasingly being viewed as the odd man out as South Korean President Moon Jae-in has referred to the possibility of a trilateral summit involving Washington and Pyongyang.
Still, members of Abe’s ruling party on Monday were quick to dismiss this narrative, with Foreign Minister Taro Kono, for one, stressing that Tokyo is closely in touch with Washington and Seoul.
“The argument that Japan is being kept out of the loop completely misses the point,” he said.
LDP lawmaker Keizo Takemi, while speaking to Abe, quoted unnamed sources from a Washington-based think tank aligned with Republicans as saying that Trump is somewhat “alienated” within his own administration and that he has a propensity to trust Abe more than close allies such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and now-ousted National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Takemi urged Abe to reassert Japan’s position during his meeting with Trump, which could come as early as next month, that continued sanctions are necessary to achieve the verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.
“You can do this precisely because of the personal relationship of trust you have built with the president so far,” Takemi said during the Diet session.
Monday’s session took place a day before former National Tax Agency head Nobuhisa Sagawa was expected to give sworn testimony in the Diet over the falsification of documents related to the 2016 shady sale of a state-owned land to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen.
During the debate, Abe also rejected opposition calls for a similar Diet appearance by his wife, Akie, whose name was found to have been deleted from the documents, stoking suspicions that the Finance Ministry struck the heavily discounted land deal due to her once close ties with the school operator.
“If there is anything you want to ask her about, I will answer instead with responsibility,” Abe said.