Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reversed course and said he is ready to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without conditions. This must have been a difficult decision for Abe, who has until now demanded that any summit between himself and North Korea’s supreme leader be prefaced by progress over the issue of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese citizens. It is a welcome decision, one that bows to the realities of regional diplomacy. It does not, however, guarantee progress in either resolving the abductee issue or the building of relations with North Korea.
Japan has long insisted that the bilateral relationship, and a meeting between the two heads of government, demanded resolution of the abductees issue — definitive and convincing answers to the fate of Japanese individuals seized by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s. Pyongyang has provided answers, but Japanese officials and politicians have challenged them, with Abe the most vocal critic of North Korean statements.
The demand for progress over the abduction issue before the two leaders can meet has isolated Japan as Kim has pursued energetic diplomacy. After Kim’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Abe was the only regional leader with whom North Korea’s Kim has not met: Kim has had multiple meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese President Xi Jinping and even U.S. President Donald Trump.
The failure of the last summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi created an opportunity for Abe. The loss of momentum in those talks has spurred Kim to look to other diplomatic partners to continue his international rehabilitation. That explains the meeting with Putin and opens a window for Japan. Failure to seize the initiative could further marginalize Japan in Northeast Asian diplomacy.
The policy reversal has been prefaced by behind-the-scenes efforts to reach out to Pyongyang: There have been several quiet, belatedly acknowledged meetings between Japanese and North Korean officials. In addition, Japan has dropped its hard line against Pyongyang in recent months. For the first time since 2007, Japan did not propose a resolution condemning North Korea at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Also, the most recent edition of the Diplomatic Bluebook, the Foreign Ministry’s assessment of the state of the world and Japanese diplomacy, dropped its reference to “maximizing pressure on North Korea,” a notable shift in sentiment.
The shift followed a phone call between Abe and Trump, which was triggered by reports that North Korea had fired projectiles into the Sea of Japan on Saturday. While intelligence sources are still working to ascertain exactly what type of missiles were fired, the U.S. position claims that North Korea is still honoring its pledge to suspend all long-range missile tests. That may be, but U.N. sanctions prohibit Pyongyang from firing any projectiles using ballistic missile technology.
The policy change is another sign of Abe’s pragmatic instincts. The failure of the second Trump-Kim summit could have prompted him to double down on the maximalist position that has guided Japanese diplomacy in recent years. Clearly, however, the only way to obtain a breakthrough in relations when dealing with Kim is to engage in personal, high-level engagement. And since there have already been summits between Japanese and North Korean leaders, Abe is merely reverting to long-standing practice.
Engaging with Pyongyang could also contribute to an easing of tensions with South Korea. Moon’s determined pursuit of better relations with Kim has exacerbated strains in relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Abe’s move to seek an improvement of ties with the North, and visibly reversing policy to do so, should show Moon his pragmatism and readiness to make bold moves if a partner is willing to reciprocate. For his part, Moon last week said that he sought better relations with Japan, remarking that “we have to have good relations for our national security as well as for future development of the economy.”
There is no guarantee that Kim will meet with Abe, however. He could decide that Japan is more convenient as a foil for whenever North Korea needs a scapegoat. In truth, Tokyo has a limited role to play in Korean Peninsula diplomacy. It may provide economic support when North Korea is ready to be fully integrated into the regional economy, but even that will pose challenges since Seoul is concerned about the extent of non-Korean involvement in the North Korean economy.
Nevertheless, Abe has made the right move. He has indicated his readiness to be bold and creative in pursuit of better relations with Pyongyang. It is now up to Pyongyang to decide if it wants a better relationship with Tokyo.