Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated that he is willing to hold an unconditional summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Abe’s suggestion came after his telephone talks with U.S. President Donald Trump. The importance of holding talks with the leader of an authoritarian state is understandable.
Abe apparently aims to clarify his intention to hold summit talks with Kim, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, with the goal of solving the problem of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. It is only natural for the leader of a country to pursue talks that will contribute to the settlement of outstanding issues.
However, just haphazardly calling for talks is meaningless. Behind-the-scenes working-level talks were held between Tokyo and Pyongyang over a long period before the first summit meeting was held in 2002 between then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The prior consultations led to the return of some abduction victims to Japan.
One cannot help but wonder why Prime Minister Abe hinted that he will seek unconditional talks with Kim even though there are no signs that necessary prior dialogue is going on between the two countries. Abe’s suggestion deserves criticism that it is solely aimed at winning support from the Japanese public.
The prime minister apparently wants to avoid criticism for being the only leader of a North Korean neighbor not to have held talks with Kim. He also appears to be aiming to keep pace with President Trump, who intends to continue dialogue with the North Korean leader.
However, Abe has emphasized that his summit talks with Kim must contribute to solving the abduction issue. The prime minister has also insisted that North Korea should take concrete actions to denuclearize.
When South Korea promoted North-South talks on the occasion of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February 2018, Abe warned Seoul against being captivated by Pyongyang’s “smile diplomacy.” Abe’s latest suggestion represents a policy reversal, but there appears to be no rational strategy behind the move.
The prime minister has emphasized that he will break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea. The deletion of a phrase that Japan will maximize its pressure on North Korea from its Diplomatic Bluebook this year is obviously part of the policy reversal.
However, North Korea’s state-run news organizations have demanded that historical issues be settled before bilateral summit talks are held. Under the circumstances, it will likely be difficult for the two countries to hold fruitful talks.
North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, and fired several short-range projectiles toward the Sea of Japan on May 4, heightening tensions in the region.
In the 2014 Stockholm Agreement, Pyongyang promised to hold a re-investigation into the whereabouts of abduction victims but the move has been stalled since North Korea conducted nuclear and missile tests.
While Japan is seeking bilateral summit talks, there are no prospects that the two countries will break the deadlock over the abduction problem as well as nuclear and missile issues.