For the first time since 2007, Japan will not take part in the submission of a draft joint resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses to a U.N. panel, the government said Wednesday, in a conciliatory gesture apparently aimed at convincing Pyongyang to hold talks with Tokyo.
The turnaround reflects Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to settle the issue of Pyongyang’s past abductions of Japanese nationals — a top priority of his administration, according to government sources.
Tokyo has jointly presented such a motion with the European Union to the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council for the last 11 years.
“We have reached this decision based on a comprehensive examination of the outcome of the second U.S.-North Korean summit and the situations surrounding the abduction and other issues” related to the North, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
“There is no change in (Japan’s) stance to closely work together with the international community, including the United States, and fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions” imposed over the North’s nuclear and missile programs, the top government spokesman said.
The decision “would not hamper Japan’s effort to keep in step with the international society” and Tokyo will continue to urge Pyongyang to improve its human rights situation, Suga added.
Abe has led the campaign with U.S. President Donald Trump to put “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program and other issues. But after the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi ended without any agreement, the prime minister began to stress the need to seize every opportunity to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to break the impasse over the abductions by the North in the 1970s and 1980s.
Trump has said he raised the abduction issue in the meeting with Kim, but the official newspaper of North Korea’s Workers’ Party slammed Abe for asking the U.S. president to take up the issue.
The Foreign Ministry has told senior lawmakers of the ruling bloc comprising Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its partner, Komeito, that Tokyo’s softer position on Pyongyang at the U.N. committee would signal its intention to resume bilateral talks, especially when the North has shown signs of being nervous over international criticism of its human rights record, the sources said.
Abe’s government hopes to alleviate concerns among ruling bloc members and conservative supporters over the softening of its policy by stressing its resolve to make progress on the long-standing issue, they said.
The European Union is highly likely to unilaterally submit a resolution during the ongoing ordinary session of the panel, which opened Feb. 25 and is expected to continue for about a month.
Atsuhito Isozaki, an associate professor and a North Korea expert at Keio University, agreed that the latest move by Tokyo is a thinly veiled overture for dialogue with North Korea, reflecting Abe’s desperation as he sees Washington drift further away from the hard-line policy of heaping pressure on the regime.
Japan could confidently claim it was “100 percent” in lockstep with Washington, its biggest ally, when Trump was unerringly committed to piling pressure on the regime. But “now that Trump is unmistakably moving away from pressure toward solving problems through dialogue, Japan is left no option but to head in this direction, too,” according to Isozaki.
Whether this strategy will work as Tokyo wishes, he said, remains to be seen.
In a meeting with Abe on Tuesday, Yasushi Chimura, 63, who was repatriated in 2002 along with his wife after both were abducted in 1978, urged the prime minister to settle the issue through direct talks with Kim.
Tokyo officially recognizes 17 citizens as having been kidnapped by North Korea and suspects the country’s involvement in many more disappearances.
Among them, five, including the Chimuras, returned to Japan in 2002 after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi held talks with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang earlier that year. Abe accompanied Koizumi as deputy chief Cabinet secretary.
Japan’s latest decision “is a tactical shift to recalibrate and possibly gain some needed momentum on the issue of kidnapped Japanese in North Korea,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at Tokyo’s International Christian University.
“The Abe administration may be taking a page out of former Prime Minister Koizumi and President Donald Trump’s diplomatic playbook by forgoing international criticism and move to a tête-a-tête with top leaders to make some needed progress,” he said.
“Koizumi’s approach yielded the release of several hostages and while no progress has been made on denuclearization, President Trump’s meetings with Kim garnered the remains of U.S. soldiers,” Nagy said.
“While this approach does not ally Japan’s security concerns with the (North), it does open up a window of opportunity to (possibly) repatriate or at least learn of the fate of those kidnapped Japanese,” he added.