National / Politics

Japan softens tone on North Korea and Russia in foreign policy report as Abe pursues deals

Kyodo

The government removed a reference to applying “maximum pressure” on North Korea and stopped short of explicitly claiming ownership of the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido in an annual foreign policy report released Tuesday.

The concessions are apparently aimed at easing diplomatic tensions as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempts to resolve long-standing issues with both countries while he is in office.

In its Diplomatic Bluebook 2019, the Foreign Ministry said North Korea has not taken any substantive steps to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles despite repeated calls to do so from the international community.

But the ministry used less condemnatory language than it did in last year’s report, which said Japan was working closely with countries including the United States to “maximize pressure on North Korea by all available means,” as its growing arsenal posed an “unprecedented, grave and imminent threat.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the language used in the report was chosen after taking into consideration “significant developments” on North Korean nuclear issues, such as the two summits between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Japan has maintained its sanctions against North Korea. But the Abe government has also been making conciliatory gestures, such as by not sponsoring a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses at a U.N. panel, apparently to engage with Pyongyang in the hope of someday resolving the abduction issue.

While last year’s report plainly stated that the four Russia-controlled islands off eastern Hokkaido belong to Japan, the 2019 edition says Tokyo and Moscow are working toward resolving the territorial dispute under the “strong leadership” of Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Despite the different wording, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said “it goes without saying” that the government’s stance on the islands remains unchanged.

The dispute goes back to the Soviet Union’s seizure of the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, following Japan’s surrender in 1945 and has remained a major sticking point in the signing of a postwar peace treaty.

Sources close to Abe have said he has been looking to secure the return of at least the smaller two of the islands but has given up on reaching a broad agreement with Putin at a summit taking place in June. A deal would be one of Abe’s biggest political achievements since returning to power in 2012.

On South Korea, the report said bilateral relations are in an “extremely difficult situation” as the countries remain at odds over issues including compensation for Korean laborers during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula.

South Korea’s top court in October ordered a Japanese company to pay laborers for forced work, a decision the report criticized as going against a 1965 agreement that also established diplomatic ties between the countries.

Tensions flared again in December when a South Korean destroyer allegedly locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane.

The report said Japan’s security alliance with the United States is “stronger than ever” amid frequent talks between Abe and Trump.

Ties with China, which had soured at one point over Japanese-controlled, Bejing-claimed islets in the East China Sea and differing views of wartime history, have returned to a normal track and could further improve, the report said.