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Interview with PM Abe on North, South Korea, China ties, Senkakus, constitution

In his interview with Sankei Shimbun on Jan. 23 in which he stated that he will visit South Korea for the PyeongChang Olympics opening ceremony, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also indicated his strong desire to revise the constitution, saying: “The people should play the leading role. Greater efforts are necessary to enhance the people’s understanding.”


Q: Will you visit South Korea during the PyeongChang Olympics, which open on Feb. 9?


Abe: The Olympic Games are a celebration of peace and sports, and Japan will be hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I would like to attend the opening ceremony to encourage the Japanese athletes if circumstances permit. I would certainly like to meet with President Moon Jae-in during my visit. With regard to the Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue, the ROK’s unilateral demand on Japan to take further measures is absolutely unacceptable. I believe I need to convey this thinking to the president in person.


This agreement is a commitment between states. Japan has fulfilled all its promises in good faith. I was involved with the process of concluding the agreement, but the obligations need to be sustained even with a change of administration. Repudiating this universal international principle will render accords between states meaningless, and this will mean the disintegration of the very foundation of a stable international order.


I recognize the merit of the North-South dialogue for the success of the PyeongChang Olympics. The Olympics should be considered as a separate matter. However, North Korea continues its development of nuclear arms and missiles. There must be no wavering whatsoever in the policy of maximizing pressure on North Korea. I would also like to make this clear to President Moon. I would like to reconfirm that Japan, the U.S., and the ROK will cooperate closely to persist in applying strong pressure.


Q: There is also strong public opposition to this.


Abe: It is a fact that there is strong criticism, and I can fully understand such sentiment. On the other hand, we must cooperate for the success of the PyeongChang Olympics, which is being held in Asia. I would like to make this position of Japan clear. It is the job of the leader of the administration to give thorough consideration to what needs to be done, make decisions, and implement those decisions.


Q: What about the removal of the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul?


Abe: I will certainly make a strong demand on this.


Q: Do you expect the summit meeting to produce positive results?


Abe: Unless we meet and convey our thinking, the other party will not change its mind. It is necessary to convey my thoughts clearly not through teleconferences but by meeting in person. I have been thinking that this meeting needs to take place as soon as possible.


Q: President Moon is said to be pro-North Korea. Do you think he will get your message?


Abe: Japan and the ROK need to cooperate in the face of the imminent North Korea threat. While Japan and the U.S. will continue to work closely, Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation is crucial. Bilateral cooperation is also indispensable for the safety of Japanese nationals in South Korea. A summit meeting will be necessary to further enhance cooperation.


Q: It would seem that there has been a temporary lull in the North Korea issue thanks to the Olympics. How do you see the present situation?


Abe: Dialogue for the sake of dialogue will be meaningless. North Korea promised to dispose of its nuclear arsenal under the 1994 framework and the Six Party Talks agreement in 2005, but it has used this to buy time for its development of nuclear weapons and missiles. It is necessary to impose sanctions on North Korea, including by China and Russia. It is a good thing if it refrains from provocations during the Olympics. However, the undeniable fact is that it will continue with its nuclear and missile development even during this period. That is why it is important to sustain the sanctions.


Q: Will you caution South Korea against providing humanitarian aid to North Korea?


Abe: For sure, there are people who are starving in North Korea. I myself would also like to help them. However, North Korea has the national resources to make highly advanced missiles and test a nuclear bomb 10 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It has the responsibility to divert such resources to help its hungry people. The international community’s taking over part of this responsibility will only give it more resources to develop missiles and conduct nuclear tests. Japan is categorically opposed to the ROK’s giving humanitarian aid at this point. This will send out the wrong message.


Q: A conciliatory atmosphere has begun to emerge since the beginning of this year.


Abe: I requested the cooperation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump asked for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s cooperation, so in the end, China and Russia also supported the UN resolution imposing tougher sanctions. Some people have speculated that North Korea might take advantage of the Olympics to seek dialogue. North Korea has a history of seeking dialogue in the face of military pressure to buy time and going back on its promises in the end. We must learn lessons from what happened in the past.


Q: Certain U.S. conservatives and Trump administration officials are now in favor of tolerating North Korea’s possession of nuclear arms.


Abe: This is absolutely impermissible. If North Korea comes to possess ICBMs capable of attacking Washington and New York, the very foundation of the NPT (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) regime will collapse. North Korea will constantly brandish its threat in the world. The possession of nuclear weapons by an unstable dictatorial state also poses risks of nuclear proliferation. Japan and the U.S. are in complete agreement on the policy of making North Korea abandon its nuclear programs in a verifiable and irreversible manner.


Q: China is making conspicuous moves with regard to the Senkaku Islands (in Ishigaki City, Okinawa).


Abe: We will safeguard Japan’s territory, territorial sea, and airspace resolutely. We have revived this strong determination after the inauguration of the Abe administration. [China] must not have any misconceptions about our resolve to safeguard the Senkakus. When a Chinese submarine intruded into Japan’s contiguous zone recently, we also demonstrated this strong determination with our actions. On the other hand, we will make efforts to start operating the sea and air liaison mechanism between the defense authorities of both countries to prevent accidental conflicts. We will continue to remain firm but calm.


Q: You indicated your policy to improve relations between the two countries in your policy speech to the Diet, but can you separate the Senkakus issue from economics?


Abe: There are difficult issues precisely because China is a neighbor. That is the reason we need to talk. Japan and China both bear a major responsibility in the North Korea issue and for peace and prosperity in Asia. Economically speaking, China’s peaceful development will open up opportunities for Japan. We would like to prod China to behave in a constructive manner through dialogue. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship. We would like to make this year a year in which both peoples can perceive a major improvement in the bilateral relationship.


Q: What is Japan’s policy on the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative?


Abe: With regard to AIIB, we would like to watch its governance, transparency, the financial state of the recipient countries, and so forth first. As to the Belt and Road Initiative, there is indeed demand for infrastructure from Asia to Africa. Projects should be undertaken in an appropriate manner, taking into account the issues of transparency, openness, economic viability, the financial state of the recipient countries, and so forth. Japan would like to cooperate in this context, and Japan’s cooperation could improve the situation in some cases.


Q: How about constitutional revision?


Abe: It is necessary to overcome the formidable hurdle of submitting motions with the support of a two-thirds majority in (both houses of) the Diet and winning the support of a majority in a referendum. This will be different from the normal legislation process. The people should play the leading role in the promulgation of a constitution. The Liberal Democratic Party needs to exert greater efforts to enhance the people’s understanding. I hope that it will engage in thorough discussions with our partner Komeito.

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