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FOCUS: Japan forced to reconsider “pressure” policy toward N. Korea

SINGAPORE — Japan has reached a turning point in deciding whether it will continue to advocate “pressure” on North Korea, as its close ally, the United States, has leaned toward dialogue with Pyongyang.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reiterated in recent years, back when North Korea was still ratcheting up tensions, that maintaining “pressure” on Pyongyang is vital to compel it to discard its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.


But Abe has been forced to withdraw his signature policy toward North Korea in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to refrain from using the word “maximum pressure” ahead of the upcoming summit between Washington and Pyongyang on June 12 in Singapore.


On Friday, Trump, who has developed strong personal relations with Abe since taking office in January 2017, said he does not want to use the term “maximum pressure” anymore because the United States and North Korea are now “getting along.”


Trump’s remarks led to Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera amending the speech he delivered Saturday at a session of the Asia Security Summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which took place in Singapore for three days from Friday.


According to a speech draft obtained by Kyodo News last week, Onodera was supposed to say that it is necessary to “maintain maximum pressure” on North Korea.


In the actual speech, Onodera said it is necessary to “maintain maximum pressure that has been currently imposed on North Korea,” apparently trying to give the impression that Japan is not considering putting more pressure on Pyongyang.


“We had to change some expressions in the speech, immediately after we knew President Trump made the comments,” a Japanese Defense Ministry official said.


Nevertheless, Onodera was lambasted at the session by South Korean Defense Minister Song Young Moo, who has emphasized the importance of talks with the North to achieve denuclearization on the divided peninsula.


Japan has “hurt” dialogue with North Korea, Song said.


Later Saturday, Onodera shied away from using the word “pressure” with regard to North Korea at a press conference following a trilateral meeting with his U.S. and Australian counterparts, Jim Mattis and Marise Payne.


Among Japanese journalists covering Onodera’s moves, speculation is rife that Abe’s government has modified its policy in consideration of the United States.


On Sunday, Onodera held trilateral talks with Mattis and Song. At their previous meeting in October last year, the three defense chiefs agreed to continue putting maximum pressure on North Korea to resolve Pyongyang’s nuclear crisis.


After the latest trilateral gathering, Onodera said only, “Japan, the United States and South Korea have so far basically agreed to maintain pressure.”


The word “pressure” was not incorporated in a joint statement released after their talks. Instead, the significance of dialogue with North Korea was stressed.


“The three ministers welcomed the results of the two recent Inter-Korean Summits” in April and May, the statement said, adding they “noted the positive changes that have been bought about are setting favorable conditions for the U.S.-North Korea Summit.”


Onodera indicated Japan has made minor adjustments to its policy, telling reporters, “Pressure and dialogue will go together.”


Even after North Korea’s conciliatory gestures and active diplomacy since the beginning of the year, Japan has warned against Pyongyang’s “smile diplomacy,” through which Tokyo says it is aiming to weaken international economic sanctions against it.


Abe said at a joint press conference with Trump on April 18 in Palm Beach, Florida, that they “completely” agreed to keep maximum pressure on Pyongyang, more than one month after the U.S. President decided to hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.


When Abe visited Trump Tower in New York in November 2016, he explained the necessity of putting pressure on North Korea, as the then president-elect did not have any policy toward Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, a source close to the matter told Kyodo News.


“Mr. Abe has been proud of himself, believing he has succeeded in prodding President Trump to maximize pressure on North Korea,” the source said.


The situation, however, has been drastically changing in recent months. Kim has held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae In twice separately since March, and he is scheduled to meet with Trump.


As expectations are rife that Kim will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the not-so-distant future, Abe is likely to become the only leader who is not able to communicate with North Korea among member countries of the long-stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.


“Prime Minister Abe may have been left at the altar,” Yuichiro Tamaki, co-head of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, told reporters.

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