North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does not want to be away from the international limelight. He has ruthlessly consolidated his authority through purges, executions, hard labour etc to send the message to the people that he is in control. This was followed by a series of short and long-range missile launches, including the intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of mounting a nuclear warhead.
A considerable part of the US was within its range. Some missiles also flew over Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, posing grave threat to this neighbouring country. He also conducted a nuclear test, thereby announcing to the world that it has become a nuclear power, eligible to sit across the table with world powers and with equal status. When the liberal Moon Jaein assumed power in neighbouring South Korea and launched peace initiatives, Kim was quick to respond.
This marked his presence on the international stage. Two summit meetings were held with President Trump in Singapore in June 2018 and in Hanoi in February 2019, apart from several summits with his South Korean counterpart. He also visited China, North Korea’s principal ally and has participated in a summit with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. He has visited Russia in April 2019 for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
Kim has held at least one leadership summit with each of the region’s major powers, Japan remains the only exception as a summit between Kim and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has not materialised. The question that remains unanswered is: Will a summit between Kim and Shinzo Abe be any different as all previous summits with major powers have virtually yielded nothing. The denuclearisation issue remains a non-starter. Despite reports that Abe is keen on a summit with Kim, his remarks in March 2018 that “talks for the sake of talks are meaningless” left analysts to wonder wha Japan’s Prime Minister actually has in mind.
Indeed, Japan had set preconditions, notably that Kim must concede Trump’s denuclearisation demands and resolve the controversial abduction issue. However, after the flurry of talks, which have not yielded any result as yet, Japan feels left sidelined from this process of talks. This is the reason why in a striking reversal, Abe has expressed the merit of keeping the dialogue option open.
He is in favour of a meeting with Kim so that the current mutual mistrust is broken. For Japan, apart from the allimportant denuclearisation issue, resolving the case of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s has remained a key foreign policy priority. Japan is also concerned that North Korea has fired short and medium-range missiles around and over Japanese territory, posing a serious security threat to the country.
A possible summit between Abe and Kim would attempt to comprehensively address the denuclearisation issue, including the abduction of Japanese nationals, and would be in line with meetings between South Korea and North Korea, and that between the United States and North Korea. However, there has been no clarity in Japan on the breakthrough it could expect from a summit if it materialises.
Fearing diplomatic isolation and to stay relevant in an age of fast-moving diplomacy with Pyongyang, one notices a potential shift in Japan’s diplomacy by neither confirming nor denying its seriousness of seeking a summit with Kim. Having realised that it might be marginalised for not holding a summit with Kim, Abe reiterates the assertion that Japan, the US and South Korea, continue to closely coordinate policies. The Government’s spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, has remarked: “We wish to make progress in our efforts to reach a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear missile and abduction of Japanese citizens. As part of that, we will review our way forward from the perspective of the most effective approach.”
Japan has been concerned over the fact that talks between South Korea and North Korea, between the US and North Korea, between China and North Korea and between Putin and Kim, could progress without Japan’s engagement and this has spurred the government’s plans for Abe’s summit with Kim. Though there are no signs of such a summit happening in the near future, if diplomacy triumphs and a Japan-North Korea summit is held, that would be the first such encounter since May 2004, when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang and met the then leader, Kim Jong-il, the current North Korean leader’s father.
Abe had then travelled to the North Korean capital with Koizumi as his chief cabinet secretary. If Kim concedes Abe’s sustained desire to see him, the move would be a perceptible departure for the latter, which has thus far shared the hardline stance of the US, indeed advocating “maximum pressure” on the isolated regime. Last year, Abe was suddenly confronted with a domestic scandal over a land deal that threatened his ambition to become Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
Abe perhaps realised that this could change the public focus after multiple cycles of scandal coverage. But the biggest factor behind efforts towards a summit was probably the feeling of Japan being left out of North Korean developments. In course of the two trips that Koizumi made to the North Korean capital, he achieved the return of some Japanese citizens abducted by the regime, as well as some family members.
Surely, Abe sees a fresh chance to make progress towards resolving the issue of the abductions that took place in the 1970s and 1980s if a summit meeting with the North Korean leader takes place. Earlier some headway seemed to have been made, but when North Korea fired two missiles in 2017, and three intercontinental ballistic missiles on steep trajectories into the Sea of Japan, talks broke down.
In September 2017, Kim’s regime threatened to sink Japan “into the sea” with a nuclear strike and turn the US into “ashes and darkness”. Any hope for a summit vanished quickly. Since then, Abe’s wish remains a will-o-the-wisp.
(The writer, former ICCR India Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow)