With North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s summit with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in seen as a success and Kim’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump on the horizon, Japan is desperate to become a player in the next round of negotiations.
But what could Tokyo use to get what it wants from Pyongyang?
Looking forward, experts say Japan’s biggest leverage is cash, or to put it more mildly, economic assistance it will be able to provide if it normalizes diplomatic ties with the North.
“You can’t say it out loud but providing money is Japan’s biggest leverage,” said Yuki Asaba, a professor and Korea expert at the University of Niigata Prefecture.
If the Trump-Kim summit bears fruit, talks between Japan and North Korea may be realized, Asaba said. And if that’s the case, the money Japan has would be a carrot for Pyongyang to normalize talks with Tokyo, which means the issue of the abductees would also see progress, he said.
But with Tokyo seemingly out of the loop, doubts remain that Japan’s interests will make the agenda. Asked if he is worried that Japan is being left out, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was not concerned.
“I spent more than 11 hours talking with President Trump the other day” about a range of topics and “we were able to completely coordinate our policy” on North Korea, Abe said, adding that the same goes for Moon.
Prior to the historic inter-Korean meeting on Friday, Tokyo went out of its way to make sure its agenda and interests will be reflected in the upcoming talks, asking its allies not to abandon it.
Unlike Washington and Seoul — two of its closest allies in the “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea — Abe has yet to secure his own summit with Kim, spurring talk that Japan is being left out.
Abe himself said in a recent Diet session that it’s possible Japan can “open the path for normalizing diplomatic relations with North Korea and settling our unfortunate past” per the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration of 2002. For this to happen, however, Abe said a comprehensive resolution of the abduction, nuclear testing and missile development issues must be achieved first. DPRK is the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Upon learning that Trump — in an about-face that surprised the world — agreed to meet with Kim, Abe in early March scrambled to arrange his own meeting with Trump.
That meeting at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida earlier this month saw Abe successfully win the president’s commitment to “do everything possible” to bring the abductees home.
The Japan-U.S. solidarity Abe managed to demonstrate to the world seemingly helped lay the groundwork for his eleventh-hour attempt earlier this week to elicit Moon’s commitment to the abduction issue. In a teleconference with Abe on Tuesday, Moon promised to raise the abduction issue with Kim during Friday’s inter-Korean summit.
Asaba said the South Korean leader made the promise because it understands that “Japan’s cooperation is essential” in offering North Korea economic assistance in the end.
Hajime Izumi, a professor of international studies at Tokyo International University, agrees.
“Japan should use diplomatic normalization as its bait,” Izumi said.
It’s not entirely impossible for the nation to pursue its own path of negotiation with Kim, instead of fully relying on allies like the U.S., he said.
“If Japan proposes to have a summit with Kim to open up diplomatic relations, I think there is a high chance they would be onboard. But if it says the summit meeting is about the abductions, they won’t listen,” he said.
Experts, however, say that any mention of the abduction issue during the inter-Korean summit, if any, is likely to be tangential at best.
Izumi said all Moon is likely to do is just “bring up the topic.”
“It’s not like he will actually negotiate the matter with Kim,” Izumi said.