• AP, KYODO, Reuters


Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, stepping from the shadows of his longtime supporting role, said Saturday in his debut at the U.N. General Assembly that he’s willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without any conditions.

The offer comes as Suga — only days into his tenure — tries to do what his predecessor and former boss, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, couldn’t: Resolve the decades-old issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens, along with the North’s growing nuclear and missile program.

"Establishing constructive relations between Japan and North Korea will not only serve the interests of both sides but will also greatly contribute to regional peace and stability,” Suga said in a recorded speech that came Friday afternoon at the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. in New York.

"I will miss no opportunity to take actions with all my dedication," he said.

In a nod, perhaps, to criticism that he is something of a lightweight on foreign policy issues, Suga noted that he has worked for many years on the abduction issue, which remains a big domestic concern in Japan. Abe had also offered to meet with Kim during his own tenure.

Suga's international debut is being watched closely because he has spent a large part of his career supporting Abe with backroom bureaucratic maneuvers and in largely scripted, sometimes prickly dealings with the media.

His speech was relatively straightforward, with no resounding rhetoric or wildly innovative ideas to improve Japan's rocky ties with the nations it terrorized in World War II or its decadeslong economic malaise.

Even with supply chain disruptions and other cross-border restrictions caused by the pandemic, Suga underscored the significance of multilateralism and free trade, and vowed to promote World Trade Organization reform and free trade agreements with other countries.

"The novel coronavirus disease has pulled us into an unprecedented crisis, which in turn has brought the international community back to cooperation from its tendencies towards division and isolation," he said.

"I call on all of you to unite in solidarity so we can turn the current crisis into an opportunity to reinforce our cooperation," he added.

Much as he’s done domestically in the week and a half that he’s been prime minister, Suga is eager to emphasize that he’ll continue the foreign policy efforts Abe championed in his nearly eight-year rule.

Suga’s cautious approach is largely due to his lack of experience on the world stage, in part because his job as chief Cabinet secretary required him to manage disasters and other crises at home. But it also may be linked to his temperament.

"He is not a visionary,” according to Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. He is "a capable lieutenant who will follow Abe’s foreign policy.”

Because of the constraints on travel and face-to-face contact caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Suga also won’t be able to pursue the personal diplomacy that Abe favored and "will muddle along rather than breaking any new ground,” Kingston said.

Suga maintains that he was involved behind the scenes on big foreign policy issues and in building relationships with foreign leaders.

Yet his lack of foreign policy experience is a worry even among his party colleagues, said Tsuneo Watanabe, a Sasakawa Peace Foundation senior research fellow who is an expert on Japan-U.S. relations.

That said, Suga has good contacts with the country’s powerful bureaucrats and with skilled policy advisers in the Foreign Ministry, Watanabe said.

His approach will probably "be pretty much the same as Abe’s,” focused on a stronger security alliance with the United States while balancing economic ties with China, Watanabe said.

Suga has praised Abe’s skills in forging personal ties with U.S. President Donald Trump, something he said that he might not be able to do as well. Abe’s close relationship with Trump, much marveled at in the domestic press, was said to be key to keeping U.S.-Japan ties firm. And Suga may have played a bigger part in building that relationship than is widely known.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks in a pre-recorded message during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Friday at U.N. headquarters in New York.  | UN PHOTO / VIA AP
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks in a pre-recorded message during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Friday at U.N. headquarters in New York. | UN PHOTO / VIA AP

In recent comments published in Bungei Shunju magazine, Suga said he was the one who insisted on establishing ties with the Trump side when nobody was seriously expecting a Trump victory.

Among the other strong pieces of evidence that Suga wants foreign policy continuity with Abe is his appointment of Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother and a China hawk, as defense minister.

But continuity won’t necessarily thrill the country's Asian neighbors. Many have been hoping that Suga will distance himself from the hawkish Abe.

Suga will face perhaps his biggest challenge in trying to settle ties with South Korea. The countries’ trade and political relations plummeted under Abe after South Korea’s top court ordered two of Japan’s largest companies — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel — to compensate the families of South Koreans who were forced into labor during World War II.

The Japanese government said the move was illegal and unsuccessfully called on Seoul to resolve the matter according to a 1965 treaty that normalized relations and included compensation payment.

"If Abe’s successor intends to serve the long-term interest and avoid further deterioration of the Japan-South Korea relations, now is the time to explore the chance for a reset in relations,” Kazuhiko Togo, a former diplomat and a visiting professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, wrote in a recent East Asia Forum article.

As for China's attempts to undermine Japan's control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea, Suga said Friday that Japan continues to promote a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" based on the rule of law.

"We must not allow challenges against the rule of law in times of increasing uncertainties," he said, in a veiled criticism against Beijing's attempts to alter the status quo by force or coercion.

Suga also said that Tokyo is determined to host the postponed Olympics next summer as proof that the world is bouncing back from the virus.

Japan, with just over 80,000 cases and 1,500 deaths, has so far managed to avoid the explosive spread of infections seen in the United States and Europe, despite its nonbinding shutdown requests. Experts say the widely accepted use of face masks and regular handwashing and sanitizing might have helped, though there’s worry about another wave of illness this autumn and winter. The government is now further relaxing restrictions on tourism and public events to try to stimulate economic recovery.