North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shown “great interest” in meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — with a major caveat — one of the highest-ranking North Korean diplomats to defect in years told a news conference Thursday in Tokyo.
Former Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom Thae Yong Ho, who has spoken out against the Kim regime since defecting with his family to South Korea in 2016, said the North Korean leader was open to a summit with Abe, but that Japan must first show that it intends to honor a 2002 agreement, citing economic or humanitarian aid as possible signals of Tokyo’s sincerity.
“Maybe not this year, but in his (long-term) goal to become an influential leader in this region, he is willing to meet Prime Minister Abe,” Thae said. “There is no doubt about it.”
In a dramatic shift, Abe offered early last month to meet Kim “unconditionally” in a bid to restore diplomatic contacts with North Korea.
Abe, viewed by many as a foreign policy hawk, has recently softened his hard-line rhetoric toward Pyongyang, calling for a summit with Kim to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s in addition to Japan’s nuclear and missile concerns.
“We can’t break the shell of mutual distrust between Japan and North Korea unless I directly face Mr. Kim,” he said. “I hope that he is a leader who can make a decision strategically and flexibly on what is best for his nation.”
As one of the newest and youngest leaders in the Asia-Pacific region, Thae said that Kim believes he can only accomplish his goals, including his quest for legitimacy, by meeting the leaders of regional powers.
The North Korean dictator has embarked on a coming out tour of sorts over the past 15 months, meeting with the leaders of China, South Korea, Singapore, the U.S., Vietnam, and most recently Russian President Vladimir Putin in late April.
“Now he has met all of them except Prime Minister Abe,” Thae said, adding that while such a meeting would surely materialize, it would come at a cost.
Pyongyang, he said, “strongly believes” that the Japanese government has “outstanding” issues that it has reneged on with the Kim regime.
He pointed to the landmark 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, which was signed following the first-ever Japan-North Korea summit meeting between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father.
In the declaration, signed in the North Korean capital, Japan pledged to give economic assistance to North Korea once bilateral diplomatic relations are normalized with the resolution of the abduction issue to atone for its past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. For its part, North Korea agreed to extend its moratorium on missile testing.
Abe was the chief negotiator for the Japanese government on behalf of the families of abductees and, as a part of Tokyo’s effort to resolve the issue, accompanied Koizumi in 2002.
“That’s why if Prime Minister Abe wants to meet Kim Jong Un, (the regime) thinks that the Japanese government should do something in advance to show the sincerity of implementing that … declaration,” Thae said.
“If the Japanese government indicates any kind of economic or humanitarian aid in advance, then I think Kim Jong Un will take that offer,” he added. “But if there is not any immediate or upcoming benefit for Kim Jong Un to meet Prime Minister Abe, I don’t think Kim … will meet the prime minister in the near future.
Japan, however, said in 2006 that North Korea violated that agreement when it fired a ballistic missile.
Nevertheless, Thae said the question remains: What and when can Abe deliver to make any summit happen?
Thae, who was making his first visit to Japan to promote the Japanese-language publication last week of his book, “Password From the Third-Floor,” also revealed that among North Korean diplomats, Japan is ranked as the second most difficult country to enter, after South Korea, where he and his family currently reside, and before Israel at No. 3. The United States, he said, ranked fourth.
The book’s title is a reference to a secretive office on the third floor of the headquarters of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, he has said, which is believed to be a “control tower like the South Korean Presidential Secretariat” and reports only to the leader.
Thae’s remarks came as Chinese leader Xi Jinping kicked off his first visit to Pyongyang as president, in what has been widely seen as an attempt to push for a bigger role in stalled nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea.
Those negotiations have been deadlocked since the second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump collapsed without a deal due to major differences over the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the United States.
China, the North’s top ally and economic lifeline, has urged the two sides to return to the negotiating table, and Xi’s visit — the first trip by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years — will surely see the two sides discuss ways to kick-start talks with the U.S.