WASHINGTON – The transformation of North Korea from pariah state to a focus of much hope and expectations has been nothing short of astonishing. Less than a year ago, worries about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and its erratic missile testing heightened tensions to the extent that worries of war breaking out loomed large. Since the Pyeongchang Olympics, however, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime has been a driving force in setting the pace, tone and agenda for the international community in engaging with North Korea. In contrast, Japan’s position as a leader in ensuring peace in the region has seemingly waned, as there are no immediate plans for a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kim.
Concerns abound about Japan’s own interests being sidelined by not being at the negotiating table with North Korea. Certainly, Japan has lived with the threat of a North Korean attack since the regime made clear its medium-range capabilities in 1998, unlike the United States, which has only begun to fear an attack by Pyongyang since its ICBM potential came to the forefront last year.
Japan’s immediate concerns rightly remain making sure that medium- as well as short-range missiles that have threatened regional stability over the past two decades also be part of any denuclearization agreement that North Korea and the United States may agree to pursue. Not being at the negotiating table does weaken the voice of putting forward Japan’s concerns.
Nevertheless, even if Japan is not at the forefront of summit diplomacy centering around North Korea, Tokyo nonetheless has a key role to play in ensuring that Pyongyang remains accountable and delivers on its rhetoric if it is to be fully engaged with the international community and secure financial assistance. Precisely because Tokyo is not directly involved with planning and executing a bilateral meeting, it is well-placed to focus more on the longer-term objectives of not only denuclearization, but also on political issues, including human rights, without being swayed by public performances and imagery.
Certainly, Tokyo’s steadfast focus on the return of Japanese abductees has been viewed with skepticism, given that any discussion with the North Korean regime will invariably focus on how to proceed with denuclearization, and prospects of peace talks.
In spite of the recent charm offensive by Kim together with his sister, Kim Yo Jong, it would be foolhardy not to insist on the regime to acknowledge its multitude of human rights violations, not least the execution and imprisonment of tens of thousands of political opponents, according to some estimates.
It is within that context that Japan should champion the release of Japanese abductees from four decades ago. Japan can and should be at the forefront of insisting on Pyongyang acting within the acceptable parameters of the international community and push for the regime to be accountable for its human rights records as it presses for the release of its abductees.
The Japanese government can work together with the families of U.S. as well as South Korean victims of North Korean violence and champion the cause of human rights being an integral part of any negotiation with Pyongyang.
Looking ahead, however, Tokyo’s relations with Washington remain unsettling. While the Japanese government has continued to emphasize that it remains solidly on the same page with Washington when it comes to security issues and the security alliance in particular, U.S. reluctance toward multilateralism and becoming more protectionist and inward-looking has led to policy changes not only in North Korea, but across the region as well.
The fact that Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, for the first time in over eight years only days before the Abe-Trump summit meeting spoke volumes about how Tokyo and Beijing are willing to set aside ongoing tensions to focus on issues of mutual concern. Ostensibly billed as an economic dialogue, the meeting highlighted the fact that both countries are concerned about the prospect of a trade war flaring up with the United States as Washington and Beijing engage in a tit-for-tat tariff debacle.
At the same time, Tokyo and Beijing share concerns about their respective interests regarding North Korea not being adequately reflected through the inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. summits.
How the international community re-engages with North Korea could potentially drive a wedge between countries in East Asia. At the same time, North Korea is only one of the pieces of a regional puzzle that is still trying to find a place to fit in, albeit a significant piece. But as Japan and China prepare for a meeting of their respective top leaders in May, questions that go beyond denuclearization will be raised, and possibilities for new opportunities for regional cooperation in order to avoid conflict may well arise.
Shihoko Goto is the senior associate for Northeast Asia with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program based in Washington.