SINGAPORE – Japan has reached a turning point in deciding whether it will continue to advocate “pressure” on North Korea as its close ally, the United States, leans toward dialogue with Pyongyang.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has always said that maintaining pressure on Pyongyang is vital in compelling it to discard its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
But he has been forced to withdraw his signature policy toward North Korea in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to refrain from using the word “maximum pressure” ahead of the summit between Washington and Pyongyang scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
Trump, who according to some sources has developed a strong personal relationship with Abe since taking office in January 2017, said last Friday he does not want to use the term “maximum pressure” anymore because the United States and North Korea are now “getting along.”
Trump’s remarks led to Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera amending the speech he delivered the next day at a session of the Asia Security Summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which took place in Singapore for three days from Friday.
According to a draft of the speech obtained last week, Onodera was supposed to say it is necessary to “maintain maximum pressure” on North Korea.
In the actual speech, Onodera said it is necessary to “maintain maximum pressure that has been currently imposed on North Korea,” apparently trying to give the impression that Japan is not considering putting more pressure on Pyongyang.
“We had to change some expressions in the speech, immediately after we knew President Trump made the comments,” a Defense Ministry official said.
Nevertheless, Onodera was lambasted at the session by South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo, who has emphasized the importance of talks with the North to achieve denuclearization of the divided peninsula.
Japan has “hurt” dialogue with North Korea, Song said.
Later Saturday, Onodera shied away from using the word “pressure” with regard to North Korea at a news conference following a trilateral meeting with his U.S. and Australian counterparts, Jim Mattis and Marise Payne.
Among Japanese journalists covering Onodera’s moves, speculation is rife that the Abe government has modified its policy in consideration of the United States.
On Sunday, Onodera held trilateral talks with Mattis and Song. At their previous meeting in October, the three defense chiefs agreed to continue putting maximum pressure on North Korea to resolve the nuclear crisis.
After the latest trilateral gathering, Onodera said only that “Japan, the United States and South Korea have so far basically agreed to maintain pressure.”
The word “pressure” was not incorporated in a joint statement released after their talks. Instead, the significance of dialogue with North Korea was stressed.
“The three ministers welcomed the results of the two recent Inter-Korean summits” in April and May, the statement said, adding they “noted the positive changes that have been brought about are setting favorable conditions for the U.S.-North Korea summit.”
Onodera indicated Japan has made minor adjustments to its policy, telling reporters that “pressure and dialogue will go together.”
Even after North Korea’s conciliatory gestures and active diplomacy since the beginning of the year, Japan has warned against Pyongyang’s “smile diplomacy,” which Tokyo says is aimed at weakening the international economic sanctions now in place.
Abe said at a joint news conference with Trump on April 18 in Palm Beach, Florida, that they “completely” agreed to keep maximum pressure on Pyongyang, more than one month after Trump decided to hold the summit with Kim Jong Un.
When Abe visited Trump Tower in New York in November 2016, he explained the necessity of putting pressure on North Korea, as the then-president-elect did not have any policy toward Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, a source close to the matter said.
“Mr. Abe has been proud of himself, believing he has succeeded in prodding President Trump to maximize pressure on North Korea,” the source said.
The situation, however, has drastically changed in recent months.
Kim has met separately with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in two times since March, and he is scheduled to meet with Trump again soon.
As expectations are rife that Kim will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the not-too-distant future, Abe is likely to become the only leader who is not able to communicate with North Korea among member countries of the long-stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.
“Prime Minister Abe may have been left at the altar,” said Yuichiro Tamaki, co-head of the Democratic Party for the People, an opposition party formed last month in a merger between Kibo no To (Party of Hope) and the Democratic Party.