The potential for Japan-North Korea summit and its obvious limitations



It was recently reported that Japan has been seeking a summit with North Korea. Some expect a successful Japan-North Korea summit to help the scandal-hit Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's domestic standing and enhance the Japan-US alliance by serving as a bridge between North Korea and the US. But the possibility and significance of a potential bilateral meeting between Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should not be overestimated due to three major constraints.

First, Abe seems less incentivized at the potential popularity of a summit with Kim despite former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi seeing a surge in support for his meeting with Kim Jong-il in 2002. Koizumi and George W. Bush had a close personal relationship and North Korea appeared to initially expect Japan to play a bridging role for improving ties with the US. That might have been the primary reason why North Korea surprisingly admitted to abductions and made a quasi-apology when Koizumi visited Pyongyang. Ensuing developments proved the abduction issue a convenient tool for domestic conservative politicians to boost their popularity.

Abe has benefited by showing toughness toward North Korea, particularly on the abduction issue. To some extent, Abe has been kidnapped by the abduction issue as any failure on this issue in a North Korea-Japan summit would undoubtedly undermine his political credibility despite the attractiveness of a distraction from his domestic scandals. The Moritomo Gakuen scandal has cost Abe's approval rating around 6 percent since February, but it remains at a solid 42 percent.

Second, Japan has almost squandered its leverage with North Korea. Despite his initially successful North Korea visit, Koizumi finally decided to follow the American line of making denuclearization a precondition for negotiations on Japan-North Korea diplomatic relations. Since 2009, Japan has followed the US in imposing individual economic sanctions on North Korea outside of the United Nations Security Council multilateral economic sanctions. Consequently, the significance of North Korea-Japan economic ties has shrunk. Japan has lost its economic leverage and personnel channels with Pyongyang.

Since 2004, North Korea has largely shunned direct talks with Japan. Japanese policy toward North Korea also reached a stalemate symbolized by a one-sided pressure approach with no progress on the abduction issue. In other words, Japan has not developed a coherent North Korea policy and might be seen as strategically irrelevant by North Korea. After North Korea indicated its willingness to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan became automatically involved in the ensuing diplomatic game but as a relatively unimportant actor.

Third, Japan is suffering inharmonious relations with China and South Korea, which limits its potential role as a facilitator for a diplomatic breakthrough on the peninsula. Despite the recent encouraging signs of improving Sino-Japanese ties, the fundamentals of this relationship are far from solid due to the uncertainties over maritime territorial disputes, the Taiwan question and historic problems. Japan-South Korea relations are still troubled by the "comfort women" issue, which Japan regards as in complete closure but South Korea views as unresolved.

The only way left for Japan now is to justify its previous policy logic of maximum pressure and a strengthening US-Japan alliance. Abe is going for a meeting with US President Donald Trump soon and North Korea will be a central topic. Any substantial Japanese policy change would be possible only after the US-North Korea summit in May.

Japan is hailing the recent détente between the two Koreas and the US and North Korea as the result of a maximum pressure approach. But the metric for measuring that linkage is unclear. The Japanese policy plan is based on the assumption that maximum pressure approach will force North Korea to negotiate on the precondition of unilateral denuclearization. This is wishful thinking rather than a sophisticated policy for realizing the ultimate goal of a soft landing for North Korea nuclear issue.

In 1990, Shin Kanemaru, a veteran Liberal Democratic Party politician visited North Korea and met Kim Il-sung. His delegation issued a joint statement with the Workers' Party of North Korea, which declared Japan's obligation of compensation for its colonization of North Korea and called for normalization of ties. This seemingly bold but personally initiated diplomatic attempt went nowhere mainly due to the lack of a solid political consensus in the government. After the Cold War, the North Korean policy debate in Japan was mainly constrained within the US non-proliferation framework, which viewed North Korea as a rogue state.

In the past decade, Japanese strategic thinking on the Korean Peninsula has stalled, simply concentrating on economic sanctions and missile defense systems. It is time for Japan to adjust its approach and coordinate with other major parties than the US. The adjustment of Japanese relations with its East Asian neighbors needs to proceed based on a long-term vision rather than a short-term response toward the recent dramatic developments of the Korean Peninsula.