Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long asserted to exert maximum pressure on North Korea to realise denuclearisation. But Abe has to be clear that ‘pressuring’ must lead to dialogue and not to war. The timing of this switch from pressure to dialogue is crucial to settle the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula.
Some in Japan hoped that Abe would seize the right timing of switching policy from pressure to dialogue and take leadership in resolving the North Korean denuclearisation issue. Regrettably, Abe and his best foreign policy advisors missed that opportunity and it was South Korean President Moon Jae-in who caught Kim Jong-un’s signals earlier in 2018 to shift course toward dialogue. It was Moon who swiftly moved to organise the Panmunjom Summit on 27 April, which paves the way for the US–North Korea summit to be held in May or June.
Abe technically has no role in joining either the US–North Korea talks on denuclearisation or peace talks on formally ending the Korean War and was being kept out of the loop. He was put in a humiliating position just for asking Trump and Moon to raise the abduction issue on Japan’s behalf to Kim Jong-un.
Abe was fast to change the course of his policy. As early as 27 April, the Japanese government published the ‘Foreign Minister’s Statement’. It ‘commended’ Moon, ‘welcomed’ denuclearisation, ‘hoped’ that North Korea would do what it said, but most importantly, declared his intention to realise the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, of which the primary objective is the normalisation of the relationship between Japan and North Korea.
First, judging from nearly all analyses of the situation, the key challenge of US–North Korea talks will be to find a balance between ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement’, which US President Donald Trump is seeking, and some sort of ‘regime guarantee’, which North Korea considers essential. Japan has a legitimate basis on which to join the denuclearisation discussions because it faces a real threat from North Korea’s weapons — demonstrated by North Korea’s short- and medium-range ballistic missile tests in the Sea of Japan over the past two decades.
Second, and perhaps more important, a role for Japan in any kind of ‘regime guarantee’ does exist. North Korea is primarily interested in receiving a regime guarantee from the United States. But Japan is one of the few countries other than the United States that does not recognise North Korea as a sovereign state. The choice for Japan to officially recognise North Korea before its possible unification with the South or afterwards as a part of a unified Korea will be a crucial choice that will affect Japan’s diplomatic position on the Peninsula. In the 27 April Statement, by way of coming back to the Pyongyang Declaration, Abe has declared to all parties concerned that Japan has this broad and strategic thinking.
Interestingly, in Moon’s debriefing of his talks with Kim he conveyed to Abe that Kim would welcome a bilateral Japan–North Korea summit. This might show that Kim is a shrewd strategist to recognise Abe’s possible role as a regime guarantor.
Third, if negotiations go smoothly and are followed by the relaxation of sanctions and general encouragement of trade, investment and assistance towards North Korea, Japan’s economic role may be important. If joining an international reconstruction ‘consortium’ to North Korea, Abe certainly would not allow Japan to merely write cheques without being given the opportunity to first give its view on political solutions.
Fourth, coordination among South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia will become crucial whether or not a renewed six-party framework is established. The United States may listen carefully to Japan. Trust between China and Japan is still low, but the relationship appears to be on the mend. South Korea may not necessarily welcome Japan’s involvement too much in that process, but Seoul would find it difficult to oppose it. But the person with whom Japan may best have a frank strategic dialogue is Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who shares profound interests in a peaceful settlement on the Peninsula but who has no natural legal position in Korean War peace talks.
Further, Abe may soon have another significant opportunity to be involved on the Peninsula. If the present-day atmosphere of dialogue collapses and the world reverts to the brink of war, then Abe’s role is to tell Trump that there must be no war on the Korean Peninsula because the cost for South Korea and Japan would be too great.
In 1941 Japan and the United States were negotiating Japan’s withdrawal from China. Japan agreed to the principle of withdrawal but they could not get the timing right, and Japan eventually attacked Pearl Harbor. If the United States asks too hastily for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement and loses patience with a more gradual and mutual process to establish trust with North Korea, the world may face another war. Abe must ensure that this does not happen.
Kazuhiko Togo is Professor of International Politics and Director of the Institute of World Affairs, Kyoto Sangyo University.