With Korean Peninsula developments proceeding at unprecedented speed, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be seeking a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Two Japanese media outlets, Kyodo and Jiji, reported that the idea is being studied by the government, following a meeting between Abe and a South Korean envoy who visited Japan to brief him on the inter-Korean meeting in Pyongyang last week.
Although there has been no official confirmation yet, officials did not deny the reports.
“What is important is that the three countries, Japan, the US and South Korea, continue to closely coordinate policies,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a regular media briefing on Wednesday, according to AFP.
“We wish to make progress on our efforts to reach a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear, missile, and abduction (of Japanese citizens issues) … and as part of that, we will review our way forward from the perspective of the most effective approach,” Suga added.
If the rumors prove true, they would make sense for Abe for a variety of reasons.
Off the sidelines, on the pitch
Abe looks to have been blindsided by the surprise news – that broke last week – that US President Donald Trump had enthusiastically accepted Kim’s offer of a summit. That offer was delivered to the White House by South Korean envoys who had met Kim and other senior officials in Pyongyang days earlier. That meeting, in turn, had been an outcome of the intense inter-Korean politicking that took place, with Trump’s endorsement, on the sidelines of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Abe, who has cultivated close relations with Trump, has been the most enthusiastic promoter of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy toward North Korea – a policy Abe urged South Korean President Moon Jae-in to continue to apply in an uneasy meeting between the two just prior to the Winter Games beginning.
Moon, while applying Trump’s pressure tactics, has simultaneously pressed forward with engagement policies – which are now bearing spectacular fruit.
With Moon and Trump tentatively scheduled to summit with Kim in, respectively, April and May this year, Abe may not wish to be left behind by developments, so may climb aboard the engagement bandwagon.
Statesmanship overseas – scandal evasion at home?
A diplomatic offensive overseas might also be helpful to divert attention from a domestic running sore, for Abe is being buffeted by a cronyism scandal that refuses to die a quiet death.
Last year, he and his wife stood accused of being involved in a sweetheart real estate deal involving an ultra-nationalist educational institution, but no compelling evidence surfaced to prove the allegations.
However, on Monday, a government report on the issue indicated that bureaucrats working for the Finance Ministry had doctored documents related to the scandal – notably the role of Abe’s wife in it.
The latest developments have led to minor protests, ignited calls for Abe’s finance minister to resign and appear to threaten his mooted third-term in office.
Addressing a lingering controversy
Moreover, if Abe meets Kim, he would be positioned to ask questions that have been hovering over Japanese politics for over a decade.
In a groundbreaking meeting in 2002 between then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il – father of current leader Kim Jong-un – Koizumi won an admission from Kim that North Korea had, indeed, abducted Japanese citizens.
There had long been rumors that missing persons in Japan, especially in coastal villages, had been kidnapped by North Korean agents and forced to work as language and cultural instructors for Pyongyang’s espionage operatives.
Not only did Kim admit that the kidnappings had occurred, he freed five surviving Japanese abductees. They were later followed by one abductee’s husband, American defector Charles Jenkins.
There had been speculation at the time that the Kim-Koizumi meeting could herald the opening of diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo. That, in turn, could lead to colonial-era reparations and provision of aid and loan packages, potentially worth billions of dollars; similar financial packages had helped kick-start South Korea’s “economic miracle” in 1965.
In fact, however, relations veered off-course following a second Kim-Koizumi summit in 2004 when North Korea balked at providing further details of abductees of who had, Pyongyang, claimed, died in the country. A mystery over the fate of those abductees has simmered ever since,
If Abe could re-open dialog and address this issue, he would win significant domestic kudos.
But would Kim meet Abe?
However, whether Abe is in a position to offer the kind of diplomatic or economic incentives that would make a meeting worthwhile for Kim is questionable.
Amid heavy international sanctions, financial aid is out of the question. The reopening of shuttered ferry services between North Korea and Japan, and Tokyo’s green-lighting of the various operations of the North Korean Residents’ Association in Japan would be two possible incentives Abe could offer.
Even so, it is not clear whether those steps would be enough for Kim to meet Abe, particularly given Kim’s clear focus on talks with Trump – and even more so, given the embarrassing questions, Abe is obligated to ask.