What’s behind Abe’s change of heart on a Japan–North Korea summit?

Kim Jong-un’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in late April demonstrated conclusively that the North Korean leader has no intention of retreating from the international stage after February’s ill-fated summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi. Over the past 12 months, Kim has held at least one leadership summit with each of the region’s major powers—with the notable exception of Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe claimed as recently as March 2018 that ‘talks for the sake of talks are meaningless’ when it comes to North Korea. But in a stark reversal, Tokyo has dropped its preconditions for a summit with Kim, a shift that reflects the uncertain yet sustained openness to dialogue that’s arisen in the region. Abe now says that the two leaders need to meet in person to ‘break the current mutual mistrust’.

Several unresolved issues between Pyongyang and Tokyo have contributed to the two leaders’ reluctance to meet in recent years. On the Japanese side, chief among these is the controversial abduction issue. Resolving the case of the Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s has long been championed as a foreign policy priority by Abe. Japan was also angered in 2017 by North Korea’s repeated shooting of short- and medium-range missiles around and over Japanese territory.

Tokyo has failed to endear itself to Pyongyang by continuing to be a staunch advocate of ‘maximum pressure’—and by playing a leading role in monitoring North Korea’s illicit ship-to-ship transfers. Since early 2018, North Korea’s state-run media outlets have regularly denounced Japan, even as their criticism of other major powers has at times become less strident.

The last round of bilateral negotiations between Japan and North Korea commenced in 2002 and fell apart in early 2016 when Pyongyang embarked on a new round of nuclear and missile tests. Tokyo has since attempted to get the abduction issue onto the agendas of both US–North Korea summits, but that approach has failed to lead to observable diplomatic progress.

Recognising that its own unique national interests are stake, Tokyo has slowly begun signalling a softer approach in an attempt to create the conditions for its own bilateral summit with Pyongyang. Notably, the Abe administration dropped the term ‘maximum pressure’ from its most recent annual foreign policy report, known as the ‘diplomatic bluebook’. It also, for the first time in more than a decade, declined to submit an annual motion to the UN condemning North Korean human rights abuses.

While the fundamentals in the relationship between North Korea and Japan haven’t changed, there are two key factors behind Abe’s decision to drop conditions for meeting Kim. The first is Tokyo’s and Washington’s diverging interests on North Korean issues. During the ‘fire and fury’ days of 2017, Abe and Trump met frequently, reaffirming their shared hardline approach to dealing with North Korea. After the president’s shift to diplomacy with Kim in 2018, the Abe administration publicly supported dialogue with Pyongyang but also warned against trusting North Korea, holding firm to its policy of maintaining maximum pressure.

In the year since the Singapore summit, however, it’s become clear that the US hasn’t been an effective spokesperson for Japan. By all accounts, Trump has avoided discussions of human rights topics in his meetings with the North Korean leader, making it difficult for Tokyo to effectively deal with the abduction issue through its US ally. During the recent Abe–Trump summit in Japan, Trump met with the families of some of the abductees, and Abe informed the press that the president had told him he would ‘spare no effort’ to help resolve the matter. Despite those assurances, there’s been a growing appreciation in Tokyo that the diplomatic support of the US won’t be anywhere near enough, on its own, to produce a breakthrough.

Nor has much progress been made on halting the development of North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs. Washington remains more focused on addressing its own vulnerabilities to Pyongyang’s long-range missiles than on dealing with the short- and medium-range missiles that currently threaten Japanese territory. Tokyo has likely calculated that Trump is determined to strike a deal with Kim and will once again cast Tokyo’s interests aside.

The other factor is related to internal politics in Japan. The timing of the latest move towards a summit with North Korea is advantageous for Abe. With parliamentary elections expected at least once in the next few months, Abe could use foreign policy issues to bolster his party’s position. And he has certainly built up enough capital as a hardliner over the past nine years to give himself space to propose an unconditional meeting with the North Korean leader without risking being depicted as weak by his domestic opponents.

Unfortunately for Abe, the decision to hold a summit isn’t his alone, and it’s quite possible that Kim will continue to decline Tokyo’s entreaties to meet. Kim would arguably accrue some additional prestige and status by ‘completing the set’ of summits with Northeast Asia’s leaders, but he may decide that he has more to gain by continuing to portray Japan as the natural enemy of the North Korean people. After all, Japan can’t offer anything to North Korea it can’t get from China, Russia, South Korea or the United States.

The massive financial benefits and diplomatic recognition that Pyongyang might hope for in return for resolving the abduction issue are unlikely to be forthcoming from Tokyo unless progress is made on curtailing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. Moreover, a summit with the Japanese leader would almost certainly lead to additional international coverage of the abductee issue—a particularly regrettable part of the Kim dynasty’s legacy. Even a successful resolution of the matter could well provoke more anger towards Pyongyang in Japan and across the world than it does bonhomie. As long as Kim maintains his relationship with Trump and moves towards economic cooperation with China, Russia and South Korea, Kim is in a position to decline involvement from Japan.

Ultimately, now that the leaders of China, the US, South Korea and Russia have all met with Kim and advocated dialogue, and there have been no serious plans to revive multilateral diplomacy à la the long-defunct six-party talks, it has become increasingly difficult for Japan to make its voice heard on peninsula issues. Unless Kim breaks from his current stance, it appears that this isolation could continue for some time.