Tokyo, Japan – As global interest in the second meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump next week in Vietnam gathers momentum, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is insisting on holding his own summit with the North Korean leader to settle the two neighbours’ long-standing differences.
Even as a member of his foreign ministry last month called Pyongyang an “unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat”, Abe in recent times has struck a more conciliatory tone, eyeing a “solution on North Korean matters”.
Denuclearisation and the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea decades ago to train spies have been the major obstacles in normalising relations between the two countries. In 2002, North Korea admitted it kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, with five returning home.
“I will aim at diplomatic normalisation by settling the unfortunate past,” Abe told reporters last week.
“With regards to the abduction issue, I’m convinced Japan should directly and firmly deal with North Korea and solve it bilaterally,” added Abe, referring to a pet issue of his on which he built much of his political career.
“From now on, I want to do our best to collaborate with the US, South Korea and also China and Russia to aim for a solution on North Korean matters, including abduction, nuclear weapons and missiles.”
Abe’s conciliatory message is in sharp contrast to his stance a year ago, before the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018.
Then, Abe outlined a hardline approach, pledging to “compel North Korea to change its policies” and describing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes as an “unprecedentedly grave and urgent threat”.
But following the landmark Singapore summit, Japan decided to halt some evacuation drills for a potential North Korean missile attack, while Abe in September told the United Nations General Assembly he was “ready to break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea” and hold talks with Kim to resolve the issue of the abductees.
North Korean authorities, however, have given no public indication of any willingness from their side for a summit with Japan.
Earlier this month, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency called its neighbour a “heinous criminal state against humanity” and an “immoral and impudent country”.
‘Process and timing of denuclearisation’
As Trump prepares to meet Kim in Hanoi on February 27-28, the US president says he is in “no rush” to see complete denuclearisation but will only seek a guarantee from North Korea that it will refrain from testing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
But Abe sees denuclearisation “as the first step to a comprehensive solution on North Korean matters”, echoing what many analysts believe is key to improving relations between the two neighbours.
“The summit needs to come up with an agreement that addresses the process and timing of denuclearisation,” Narushige Michishita, an executive adviser to Abe, told Al Jazeera.
“In Singapore, there was no movement or action on that. The joint declaration was lacking specifics,” added Michishita, referring to the vaguely worded statement Kim and Trump signed after their first summit that included a commitment to work “toward denuclearisation”.
“Even if concrete agreement came out, the other problem is whether North Korea will take action. In the past, it has promised denuclearisation twice. No one knows if it would do it this time.
“But if there is agreement, and process of implementation goes forward, Japan-North Korea relations will also progress.”
An unsure Japan
A recent survey carried out by Japan’s national broadcaster NHK revealed that more than 67 percent of responders did not believe there will be any progress in Hanoi on North Korea’s denuclearisation talks.
In an editorial last month, Japan’s Chunichi newspaper warned against “rushing an outcome”, adding that it was disappointing that no written and concrete process to denuclearisation was agreed upon in Singapore.
The paper also expressed worries “the US might prioritise talks of ICBM missiles for its own safety instead of other matters, including peace in northeast Asia”.
According to a Japan Times report, Tokyo has repeatedly said it is continuing “every effort” to contact North Korea through diplomatic channels, including through embassies in Beijing.
But, the report added, there has been no response from Pyongyang.
“Japan-North Korea relations are in a stalemate,” a senior foreign ministry official in Tokyo said last month.
Meanwhile, a recent deterioration in relations between Japan and South Korea has also damaged the prospects of Seoul helping out in efforts to bring Tokyo-Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
“The biggest worry for Japan is Trump’s real intention to reduce the size of US forces in South Korea,” Michishita said, in an apparent reference to the US president’s comments after the Singapore summit when he said he wanted “at some point” to withdraw his country’s troops from South Korea.
“It is not a direct threat to Japan’s security, but instability on the Korean Peninsula is not a good sign for Japan,” added Michishita, who is also a professor at the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Relations between Japan and South Korea have long been strained by disputes over history and territory, with the issues largely stemming from Japan’s brutal 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
Current arguments largely centre on the so-called “comfort women” pressed into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II and labourers made to work for Japanese firms, with a territorial dispute also rumbling over islands controlled by Seoul.
Japan-North Korea relations are in a stalemate
“Japan and South Korea are neighbours, so conflicts are detrimental to both sides’ hopes, especially when it comes to matters pertaining to China,” said Michishita. “China’s growing power is bringing concerns to Japan as well as South Korea, the US and some European countries.
“The worsening of relations between Japan and South Korea can cause problems, so Tokyo needs to manage the issues and come up with long-term solutions.”
On the streets of Tokyo, however, there is hope the talks in Hanoi will help defuse tensions in the region.
“North Korea and the US have nuclear weapons. If they build good relations, there will be less conflicts in the world,” said 22-year-old student Ayaka Itano.
But Yosuke Shiratori is sceptical about the summit’s outcome, saying he is unsure of the two leaders’ goals.
“Stability in East Asia is a good thing but the essence of the summit is shaky,” 40-year-old Shiratori said.
“It has strong political meanings. They are making the summit purpose to build peace but I see they are not focusing on that.”