Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomacy with Japan’s neighbors has reached an impasse. It is in this context that Toshimitsu Motegi and Taro Kono have taken office as Foreign Minister and Defense Minister, respectively. How will they achieve a breakthrough? This will test the skills of the two ministers.
The Prime Minister’s initiative to “take inventory of postwar Japanese diplomacy” comprises three components: resolving the abductions issue with North Korea, concluding a Japan-Russia peace treaty, and advancing Japan-China relations.
However, there are no prospects in sight for realizing the Japan-DPRK summit Abe desires, and Japan-Russia negotiations remain at a standstill. The only component where advances are being seen is Japan-China ties.
Addressing the rapidly changing situation in Asia cannot be passed over. What is particularly pressing is foreign relations with the two Koreas, which are now at an impasse.
South Korea has abrogated its General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan, and the agreement will expire in November. The liquidation of Japanese companies’ assets based on the [South Korean Supreme Court] rulings on the former requisitioned workers issue will start as soon as this year.
If these both come to pass, Japan-ROK ties will fall to a state where they may completely collapse.
Prime Minister Abe has once again asked South Korea to resolve the former requisitioned workers issue based on the  Japan-South Korea agreement on economic cooperation and the settlement of problems concerning property and claims, saying, “I would like to see the ROK keep its commitments with other nations.”
Former Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s statements and actions have been notably extreme. For example, he called the ROK ambassador to Japan “rude.” With the change to Motegi, Japan should open a way to move from confrontation to resolution.
It is said that Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon will visit Japan in October for the Sokuirei-Seiden-no-Gi ceremony [to proclaim the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito]. Taking advantage of this opportunity, a mood for dialogue could be fostered.
Amid these challenges in the Japan-South Korea relationship, North Korea is continuing to take provocative actions. Pyongyang’s repeated launches of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) is undoubtedly a threat to Japan and all East Asia.
Why are the launches not being showered with harsh criticism? It is important that a Japan-DPRK summit is realized, but it is putting the cart before the horse if Japan is shying away from criticism because it thinks that would be an impediment to holding a summit.
U.S. President Donald Trump does not see the SRBM launches as problematic. There is deep-rooted suspicion that he may very well adopt a conciliatory policy with Pyongyang regarding the nuclear issue as well.
North Korea would exploit any weakening of the Japan-U.S.-ROK partnership. Motegi and Kono both have many connections in the United States and they need to reconcile their understanding with the U.S. administration.
The Prime Minister has appointed Shigeru Kitamura, who hails from the National Police Agency and is former Director of Cabinet Intelligence, to the post of Secretary-General of the National Security Secretariat, the control tower of diplomacy led by the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei]. To date, Shotaro Yachi, a former vice-minister for foreign affairs, has undergirded summit diplomacy by talking with the aides of other nations’ leaders. The prowess of the new members of Kantei-led diplomacy will be tested.