National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Despite hype, Japan’s envoys skeptical an Abe-Kim summit would be productive

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had long made a big deal out taking a hard-line stance against North Korea. But the historic June 12 meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have changed his mind.

Abe, who had ruled out “dialogue for the sake of dialogue” with the nuclear-armed hermit state, now appears eager to arrange a summit with Kim following the dramatic show created by the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore.

“In the end, I myself need to meet Chairman Kim face to face and have a summit talk,” Abe told an Upper House session on June 18.

“I won’t miss any chance to resolve the abduction issue,” Abe said.

Speculations about a potential Abe-Kim summit began after the daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported on June 14 that Abe was considering arranging a meeting with Kim in August or September.

However, key Japanese bureaucrats and politicians have been trying to rein in the growing media hype. They have emphasized that it is never politically easy for the prime minister to arrange a summit, given the risk of giving Pyongyang something for nothing and severely damaging Japan’s military alliance with the United States.

“Japan-North Korea negotiations will never be easy as speculated in media reports,” said a key senior official at the Foreign Ministry.

“Nothing will come from holding Japan-North Korea talks over a short time,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Japan has pledged to normalize bilateral ties with and extend economic assistance to the North if the nuclear, ballistic missile and abduction issues are all resolved.

Japan normalized post-colonial relations with South Korea in 1965 by extending massive economic assistance in exchange for nullifying all reparation claims. Some media reports thus say the amount of aid extended to the North would likely be quite substantial, perhaps even more than ¥1 trillion.

The aid is considered the only diplomatic leverage Japan has to elicit change from Pyongyang. That is the reason Tokyo has for years sought to provide a full-fledged economic package in exchange for resolving the three critical issues for Japan: the elimination of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and the return of all Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents.

“Even if the abduction issue alone is resolved, Japan wouldn’t extend economic assistance. That must be well understood by North Korea, too,” said the senior Foreign Ministry official.

“And we have no choice but to ask the U.S. and North Korea to deal with nuclear and missile issues,” the official said.

For Abe, repatriating the kidnapped Japanese has been a top priority because his hard stance won him votes during his first stint as prime minister in 2006.

But hastily proceeding with talks to normalize bilateral relations with the North could damage Japan’s military alliance with the United States, which is still negotiating with the hermit state.

Japan should first watch how the U.S.-North Korea negotiations turn out before promoting its own bilateral talks with North Korea, said Masashi Adachi, an Upper House member who heads the foreign affairs division of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s policy affairs council.

“Japan has always called for a package deal to resolve the abduction, nuclear weapon and missile issues,” Adachi said.

“Japan doesn’t have nuclear weapons and it is only the United States that can negotiate over the nuclear and missile development programs,” he said.

Cautioned by aides and key bureaucrats, Abe has apparently toned down his talk about setting up a meeting with Kim.

On Friday, representatives from a nonpartisan group of lawmakers promoting the abduction issue met Abe at the Prime Minister’s Office. Keiji Furuya, chairman of the group, urged Abe not to strike an easy compromise with Pyongyang by “leaning forward too much.”

In response, Abe said any talks with North Korea “must be something that will help resolve the abduction issue.”

Meanwhile, high-ranking Foreign Ministry officials argued that Japan should actively support international efforts to denuclearize North Korea, and should share the financial costs with other countries.

Such burdens should be considered separately from any potential post-colonial assistance to the North, the officials said.

“They are totally different issues. Japan is one of the countries that would benefit from the denuclearization of North Korea,” one high-ranking ministry official said.

Overall, Japanese officials have remained largely skeptical about North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization.

In fact, the June 12 summit failed to nail down any of the key steps that would force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, despite Trump’s blustery praise about the historic meeting.

The high-ranking Japanese official said the very first step is to make the North honestly declare the location of all nuclear and ballistic missile-related facilities in the country.

“The size of the land may be about half that of Japan, but it would be impossible to find all such facilities without such declarations,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“There are so many things to do. The most important thing is get declarations from North Korea,” the official said.