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Examining Abe diplomacy (Part 7): Shift from “idealist to realist”

Moving away from the policy of exerting “pressure”


During his first administration, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was seen as an “idealist” who did not compromise on his convictions. In recent years, however, he has started to be seen as a flexible “realist.”


When he served as deputy chief cabinet secretary in the Koizumi administration, Abe was in the spotlight for the resolute stance he took on the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea.


His catchphrase was “dialogue and pressure.” “Dialogue” was included in the slogan, but the primary focus was on “pressure.” As Abe said during Diet interpellations after the start of his second administration, “dialogue for the sake of dialogue is meaningless.” In 2017 when tensions were mounting after the North repeatedly test-launched ballistic missiles, Abe said, “We will exert maximum pressure.”


In 2018, the tide turned toward dialogue with the inter-Korean summit and the U.S.-DPRK summit. Prime Minister Abe left the word “pressure” out of his policy speech in January that year, instead saying Japan would engage in “resolute diplomacy.”


After the June 2018 U.S.-DPRK summit, Abe took a forward-looking stance on holding a bilateral summit meeting with Pyongyang, saying, “Next I will directly face Chairman Kim Jong Un of North Korea.” Then in May 2019, Abe called for a summit without preconditions, saying, “I will meet in person with Mr. Kim without setting conditions.” This represented a clear shift from his “pressure” policy.


Abe spoke to those around him about the background to the shift: “U.S. President Donald Trump has raised the abductions issue in his meetings with Chairman Kim so it is inappropriate for me to not also say I am open to dialogue with Mr. Kim.”


The prime minister was criticized for his change in stance. As a top Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan official said, “It sounds like Abe is throwing away all his bargaining chips. He’s saying, ‘I just want to meet Chairman Kim. Whatever works for him is fine with me.’” With North Korea, however, it is rare for working-level efforts to produce results. Regarding the abductions issue in particular, many say that there will be no breakthrough unless Kim Jong Un is decisive. Public opinion polls also find that more than half of respondents support the prime minister’s “change in position.”


Criticized by the U.S. as well


During his first cabinet, Prime Minister Abe insisted on pursuing a conservative path under the banner of “breaking free of the postwar regime.” Regarding the comfort women issue, he said that “there was no coercion (in the narrow sense) that consisted of government authorities taking women like kidnappers.”


In reaction, some in the United States criticized Abe for “revising history,” and the U.S. Congress adopted a resolution asking the Japanese government issue a formal apology to the former comfort women.


During his second administration, Prime Minister Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. This was met once again with pushback from the United States and Asia. In the United States, unfavorable criticism spread that Abe’s conservative rhetoric and actions were destabilizing East Asia by worsening Japan-South Korea ties.


Reining in his conservative tone


Amid this, Prime Minister Abe reduced his conservative tone in his statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015, including key language from the statements of past administrations, such as “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for “aggression and colonial rule.”


In December that same year, the Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue was reached. The Japanese government offered an “apology,” expressed “feelings of remorse,” and contributed 1 billion yen as funds for the “Reconciliation and Healing Foundation.”


It was thought that the prime minister would not agree to contribute funds, but he compromised because he judged that Park Geun-hye, president of South Korea at that time, had changed course and was looking to improve relations with Japan. Barack Obama, who was the U.S. leader at the time, also welcomed the move even though he and Abe were distant. U.S. experts on Asia also reassessed the prime minister and called him a “realist.”


Last year, the standoff between Tokyo and Seoul worsened over the former South Korean requisitioned workers issue. Since then, U.S. experts have not questioned Abe’s words and actions very much. On the contrary, there have been comments that “South Korea is dredging up the issue.” His realistic handling [of relations with South Korea] in 2015 is helpful today in gaining the understanding of the U.S.


(End of series)


Seima Oki, Keita Ikeda, Hiroshi Tajima, Makiko Yanada, Kojiro Tanikawa, Tomomi Asano, Nobuha Endo, Ryosuke Okada, and Yuta Abe were in charge of this series.


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