What does Abe want from Trump over DPRK issue?



When news broke out that US President Donald Trump agreed to meet Kim Jong Un, leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), in May or early June, the US's long-time ally Japan has enough reason to get anxious.

So it came as no surprise that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was left behind in the recent rapid progress over the DPRK issue, requested a summit with Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Tuesday, ahead of South Korean President Moon Jae-in's meeting with Kim and the Trump-Kim meeting.

US and Japanese officials familiar with the preparations for the Trump-Abe summit said Japan is worried Trump may seek a deal with Kim under which Pyongyang would agree to give up missiles capable of reaching the US without eliminating short- and medium-range missiles that threaten Japan and South Korea.

According to Japan Times, Abe said earlier this month that he will ask President Trump to seek the elimination of all DPRK missiles that could reach Japan.

Getting rid of only intercontinental ballistic missiles, which Pyongyang says can reach the US mainland, “has no meaning for Japan, so I want to tell the president that (the DPRK) should also abandon short- and intermediate-range missiles that put Japan within range,” Abe said during a Diet committee session.

DPRK, a threat that rattles Japan

Japan has felt the brunt of Pyongyang's missile tests for a long time and has been concerned Pyongyang will keep demonstrating its nuclear power at the expense of Japan's security.

The DPRK first fired a rocket over Japanese territory in August of 1998 and later said it launched a satellite. Pyongyang flew another rocket over Japan in April 2009 and said again that it was carrying a satellite.

Since Kim assumed power in 2012, Pyongyang has conducted 99 missile tests, including 11 successful launches last year, five of which fell within 200 nautical miles of the Japanese islands, according to Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

'Sidelined' Japan over DPRK issue

Chinese President Xi Jinping met Kim in Beijing last month; Seoul and Pyongyang will hold a summit for its two leaders on April 27 and Trump agreed to meet Kim in May or early June, but Japan does not have any schedule for a direct talk with the DPRK.

Japan has been "unhappily" sidelined and caught by surprise particularly over the Trump-Kim talks, according to Jeffrey Kingston, Temple University of Japan's Director of Asian Studies.

"Abe thought he and Trump were on the same page in opposing talks and maximizing pressure – until Trump pulled the rug out from under him," Professor Kingston said.

"Events have been evolving very rapidly with Japan out of the loop, and it is putting the Japan government in a very embarrassing and compromising situation," Kobe University political scientist Tosh Minohara told The Straits Times.

When South Korean envoy announced the historic Trump-Kim meeting last month, Abe called Trump that very same day and told reporters after the phone call that Japan and the US would continue to be "together 100 percent" and that he would meet Trump in April. Reports say Abe has also mooted a summit with Kim, which may take place in June.

Japan's attitude toward DPRK

Japan has long insisted that Tokyo and Washington are firmly of the opinion that “dialogue for the sake of dialogue” is meaningless and that the opening of formal talks with the DPRK must be conditional on Pyongyang taking tangible steps toward the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantlement of its nuclear programs.

Though hailing Pyongyang's apparent shift in attitude, Abe said he agreed with Trump in last month's phone call that the two allies will at the moment stick to its “maximum pressure” tactics to ensure the DPRK won’t renege again.

Will Tokyo uphold hard-line approach to Pyongyang?

A high-ranking Japanese official told Japan Times that while Japan welcomes the prospect of a Trump-Kim meeting, “a bar we set for dialogue with the North (DPRK) has not been lowered,” emphasizing Tokyo will continue to “keep a close watch” on whether Pyongyang will actually walk the talk. Repeating Abe’s assertion, he said, “We will press ahead with sanctions” against the DPRK.

But some experts believe that Japan is unlikely to stick to its hard-line approach towards the DPRK as it does not want to harm its alliance with the US.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said Abe would “prioritize the Japan-US ties and his personal relationship with Trump” over the maximum-pressure policy.

Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specializing in the DPRK, echoed with Watanabe, saying, "Prime Minister Abe has shown repeatedly that he is a deft operator when it comes to keeping Japan in Washington’s good graces. He may not be thrilled by this development, but he is going to make every effort to be on the same page as the United States.”‍