Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was reelected for the third term as the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on September 20, lengthening his tenure as prime minister until 2021. Just prior to his reelection, he visited Vladivostok, Russia, from September 11-13 to attend the Eastern Economic Forum. While there, he held bilateral summit meetings with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which North Korea loomed large on the agenda. He also visited China on October 25 in which North Korea was discussed.
Abe’s talks with his Russian and Chinese counterparts come at a time when US-DPRK nuclear negotiations seem to have regained momentum, with talks of a second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un getting underway. There is some expectation that this second summit will help break the logjam that has characterized the relationship over the last few months as the two sides failed to come to an agreement on a roadmap for how to move forward.
While the US-North Korea talks denuclearization stalled, there were some movements on Japan-North Korea relations. For example, on August 28, the Washington Post—in a rare analysis examining the ebbs and flows of the personal relationship between Trump and Abe—reported that Japan and North Korea held a previously undisclosed senior-level bilateral meeting in Vietnam in July, and that such consultation was a part of an attempt to find a way forward in abduction issue. Most recently, the Japan Times reported that on October 19, Japanese and North Korean intelligence officials met in Mongolia to discuss how to resolve the abduction concerns.
Indeed, unless Tokyo can somehow find a way to settle the abduction matter, Japan will remain marginalized while other countries in the region that have stake—the US, South Korea, China and Russia—directly engage with one another and with North Korea to shape the roadmap for North Korea’s denuclearization and the future of a presumably nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Moving beyond the status quo—refusal to engage North Korea in a meaningful way until abduction issues are “completely resolved”—is easier said than done for Japan. The Japanese government’s definition of “complete resolution” of the abduction matter is for all the confirmed abductees to return to Japan alive. As much as one can be sympathetic to that goal from a humanitarian point of view, the couple of decades that have passed since the last confirmed case of abduction took place may simply make this goal a bridge too far to cross. At a minimum, allowing this issue—as tragic as it is, North Korea no longer engages in abducting Japanese citizens—to constrain Japan’s ability to play a proactive role in the settlement of North Korea’s nuclear dilemma is not in Japan’s national interest.
What is particularly aggravating for Tokyo is that, despite Abe’s success in establishing a cordial personal relationship with Trump, their relationship has become unstable due to Trump’s own unpredictability. As the current tension over trade between the two countries shows, a close connection between Abe and Trump does not protect Japan from becoming a target of the Trump administration’s “America First” approach to trade. In short, it is increasingly risky for Japan to rely only on the US to “carry its water” when it comes to major foreign policy issues, including developments on the Korean Peninsula.
Interestingly, however, Abe may be the only Japanese leader in the near future who has the power to break away from the current uncompromising stance on North Korea and put Japan as an active and viable player in Korean Peninsula issues. Since he served as the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary under then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Abe has been considered the champion of the abduction matter and the architect of Japan’s negotiating strategy vis-à-vis North Korea. He has the confidence of the abductees’ families—who are critical in shaping Japan’s current position on North Korea—that his commitment to this issue is genuine. Therefore, in a strange way, he may be in the best position to make the case to the families of the abductees that, while Japanese government would never abandon the issue, it is time for Japan to try a new approach in its policy toward North Korea. For instance, he could offer to decouple the abductee matter from nuclear and missile talks with North Korea, securing instead a North Korean commitment to continue talks on the abduction matter regardless of the status of nuclear negotiations. This may help Abe to get out of the current stalemate without appearing to weaken his commitment to the resolution of the abduction issue.
Politically, as well, Abe may be in the position to be able to take some risks once he enters his final years as prime minister before his term concludes in 2021. Although his popularity is not high, his tenure as the prime minister has been stable due to a complete collapse of the opposition party. Even though the public does not necessarily support Abe enthusiastically, their opinion of the opposition party is even less and unlikely to change in the near future. As such, Abe enters the last years of premiership with relatively stable political standing. Such stability will create some room for him to make decisions that may not be popular—adjusting Japan’s policy on North Korea could be one of those choices.
Of course, there is a big question whether Abe will take advantage of his potential for breaking precedents. Abe has already made it clear that he hopes to prioritize constitutional revision in his final years as the prime minister despite the strong public pushback expected on this matter. Because of the emotional dimension that the abductee issue has, any attempt to modify the current Japanese position to allow more flexibility in Japan’s ability to engage North Korea directly would also be politically unpopular, especially among his core supporters. While Abe places a high priority to North Korea-related matters in his foreign policy agenda, it is highly questionable whether he is willing to invest his remaining political capital into this issue.
Indeed, even if Abe can craft a new approach on the abduction issue, he would still have a long way ahead, as North Korea’s posture toward Japan will likely to be driven by their assessment on the status of its bilateral consultation with the United States. For instance, since President Trump indicated that he was “open” to holding a second summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s rhetoric against Japan has become sharper, even as the undisclosed meetings between Japanese and North Korean officials on the abduction issue have taken place. Most recently, North Korea reacted particularly strongly against Japan’s motion to push through another resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission denouncing North Korea’s human rights situation. These actions suggest that even despite a potential willingness to find flexibility on the abduction issue, the North Koreans may not see enough incentive for direct negotiations with Japan on the security-related matters to reciprocate any flexibility. While Abe may take some solace in a growing US frustration over seemingly greater divergence in US and South Korean approaches to negotiating with North Korea, he may find that his government nonetheless remains limited in its ability to influence the developments on the Korean Peninsula.
The fact is that if Abe chooses to maintain the status quo for Japan’s North Korea policy—putting the full resolution of the abduction issue up front—then there will be no way to move Japan beyond its current stalemate with North Korea in the near future. The diplomatic cost for this will be considerable for Japan, remaining sidelined during a highly dynamic negotiation process on the Korean Peninsula while the US, North Korea, South Korea, China and Russia work to redefine the regional security environment.
In short, the stakes are high for how Abe chooses to allocate his efforts in his final years as prime minister and his decisions on how to deal with North Korea could have an enormous impact on Japan’s security future. However, given the constraints he faces at home and his personal preference on what he wants to accomplish, pouring his remaining political capital into changing course on North Korea seems unlikely.
Based on recent public opinion polling by the Nihon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), close to 60 percent of the public wants him to focus on domestic issues such as the economy, revitalization of the local economy and disaster management instead.