Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan
The swift ratification of a free trade deal with the US is the latest move by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to firm up his relationship with US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

US President Donald Trump has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his diplomatic outreach to North Korea, Trump revealed during a press conference at the White House on Friday.

Trump said Abe had shown him a copy of a five-page letter he sent to “the people who give out a thing called the Nobel Prize,” according to wire reports.  “He said, ‘I have nominated you…’ or ‘Respectfully, on behalf of Japan, I am asking them to give you the Nobel Peace Prize,’” Trump said.

Abe nominated Trump because Japan now feels “good” and “safe” after North Korean ballistic missile test launches ceased.

The move may boost the personal pride of Trump – who some critics believe is at least partly motivated by egotism – and give him an added incentive to achieve success in his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.

However, one observer also believes Abe is making a plea for attention, as Korean Peninsula-related diplomatic maneuvers appear to be slipping from his grasp, amid apparent Seoul-Pyongyang-Washington coordination, and at a time when Seoul-Tokyo ties are hitting new nadirs.

Nobels in play

There has, as yet, been no public comment on the matter from the Nobel committee. Trump’s predecessor as president, Barack Obama, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.”

The current president has been critical of the award to Obama – a frequent target of Trumpian criticism –  with Trump saying, “I’ll probably never get it, but that’s OK. They gave it to Obama. He didn’t even know what he got it for.”

It is not the first time a national leader has suggested that Trump receive the Nobel for his North Korean efforts. In April 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in made the suggestion – albeit in off-the-cuff, reported remarks rather than in an actual nomination letter.

Moon’s remark was widely analyzed at the time be an effort to flatter Trump’s and keep him on the diplomatic engagement  track, following a sudden inter-Korean thaw at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, earlier that year.

Plea for attention?

Abe has gone to considerable lengths to forge an chummy personal relationship with Trump and continues to prioritize his nation’s alliance with Washington. But currently, there are significant strains in Japan-US relations.

Washington and Tokyo are at odds over trade – in one of his first acts as president, Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact which Tokyo had championed – and tariffs on Japanese exports. Moreover, Tokyo appears to be well out of the inner track on Pyongyang-Washington negotiations.

Instead, there has been considerable coordination in recent weeks between Seoul and Washington as the latter capital gears up for Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27-28.

It will be the second pow wow between the two men, following last June’s Singapore meeting. Seoul’s Moon Jae-in has also held three summits with Kim. Abe, on the other hand, has yet to meet the North Korean leader, despite putting out feelers on multiple occasions.

There is some irony in Abe’s mention of the lack of missile launches by North Korea, as the moratorium on missile tests was, in fact, put in place by Kim, prior to his June meeting Trump.

Given all this, Abe’s unusual maneuver seems aimed at keeping Trump on-side, while at the same time, suggesting to North Korea that Tokyo approves of ongoing diplomatic efforts, while also perhaps making a plea for direct talks with Kim.

“Abe is trying to send the message to the White House that Abe appreciates what he is doing, and is sending the message that Japan does not want to be left out,” Myong-hyun Go, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute told Asia Times. “There are rumors now that Japan and North Korea are holding backroom discussions… Japan sees some value in talking to North Korea, to show that South Korea is not the only dialog channel.”

The issue rises at a time when diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo – never easy – are at an all-time low over multiple issues.

Moon Hee-sang, the speaker of the South Korean parliament, last week urged the emperor to apologize for war crimes, raising ire in Tokyo. A South Korean court has ordered wartime compensation be paid to laborers, in contravention of a bilateral 1965 diplomatic normalization treaty, angering Tokyo, which is already irked by Seoul’s unilateral dissolution of a compensation fund for comfort women that had been agreed upon by the two capitals in 2015.

And the two countries are engaged in a war or words over a naval dispute: Tokyo insists that a South Korean destroyer locked its target radar on a Japanese patrol aircraft last year; Seoul insists it did not do so, and castigates Tokyo for continuing to buzz its warships at low level.

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