Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has so far adopted a policy of focusing on pressure alone in dealing with North Korea, is now moving toward holding direct dialogue with Workers’ Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un after his recent summit with President Donald Trump. This is based on his judgment that with the U.S. and the DPRK engaging in dialogue, the focus of his policy will have to shift to making progress in the abduction issue. However, prospects for finding a solution remain uncertain.
At his joint news conference with Trump held at the White House after the bilateral summit on June 7, Abe refrained from criticizing North Korea directly and did not use the word “pressure” even once. He even attempted to send a positive message to Kim Jong Un, stating that “Japan is willing to settle the unfortunate issues of the past, normalize diplomatic relations, and provide economic cooperation based on the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration.”
A Japanese government source explained: “This must have been a message based on a decision made through a comprehensive assessment of the latest information, plus his political instincts.”
Trump is the reason he has been forced to change tack. While less than two months ago, Trump had remarked at the Japan-U.S. summit that “maximum pressure will be applied until North Korea denuclearizes,” this time, he said: “We don’t want to use the term ‘maximum pressure’ anymore; we are going to have a friendly negotiation.” He is now very enthusiastic about rapprochement.
Since Abe has repeatedly stated that “Japan and the U.S. are in complete agreement,” he has no choice but to fall in step with Trump. Furthermore, he was able to obtain another commitment from Trump to take up the abduction issue ahead of the U.S.-DPRK summit.
A senior Foreign Ministry official pointed out: “It is not possible for Japan to persist in talking about pressure at a time when all countries are trying to make the summit a success.”
However, a Japan-DPRK summit will be a high-risk option for Abe. The Stockholm Agreement of 2014 on North Korea’s reinvestigation of the abductions has been dysfunctional. There is still a long way to go before concrete negotiations for the repatriation of the abductees can start, and Kim’s response to this issue at the U.S.-DPRK summit is also unpredictable. Since Abe has won support for his hardline stance on North Korea over the years, he cannot afford to be seen to have compromised.
A senior government official observed that, “This issue will be a tough one precisely because this is the Abe administration. It will involve the administration staking its very survival. If he fails, he will have to step down.”