In a major policy speech to mark the opening of parliament on Monday, Shinzo Abe also vowed to push Japan-China ties “to a new stage” and pledged a record budget to improve crumbling infrastructure in the world’s third-biggest economy.
Abe has long sought to resolve an emotional dispute related to North Korean agents’ abduction of Japanese nationals during the Cold War era to train Pyongyang’s spies.
“I will act resolutely, never failing to seize every opportunity to break the shell of mutual distrust, and I myself will directly face Chairman Kim Jong Un … to resolve North Korea‘s nuclear and missile issues, as well as the abductions issue,” he said.
Abe gave no timeframe for a potential meeting with the North Korean leader but the comments came as Kim ordered preparation for a second summit with US President Donald Trump, likely towards the end of next month.
“I will aim at diplomatic normalisation by settling the unfortunate past,” Abe said, using a Japanese diplomatic euphemism referring to harm caused by Japan during its brutal colonisation of the Korean Peninsula before and during World War II.
A new approach
The conciliatory message contrasted sharply from a year ago when Abe used the same parliamentary address to set out 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”.
North Korean authorities have given no public indication of any willingness to meet Abe, while Pyongyang’s state media regularly excoriate Japan over its past and Abe for ramping up defence spending.
A commentary by North Korea’s official KCNA news agency earlier this month called Japan a “heinous criminal state against humanity”, and an “immoral and impudent country”.
Abe also omitted references to South Korea, which he had routinely mentioned as Japan’s most important neighbour.
The two countries are currently locked in disputes over military issues and wartime history. Japan’s defence ministry is reportedly considering not participating in a multi-national defence exercise planned in South Korea this spring.
‘Peace and prosperity’
“I will strongly pursue diplomacy with neighbours for a new era … in order to make Northeast Asia truly a land of stable peace and prosperity,” he said.
Bilateral ties were harmed in 2012 when Tokyo “nationalised” disputed islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Beijing. Until recently, neither nation had made much effort to repair relations.
Japan’s business community has long urged Abe to improve ties with China – Tokyo’s largest trade partner as well as the biggest source of foreign tourists, who are collectively becoming a key driver of the country’s chronically fragile economy.
Tokyo believes a successful Xi visit is key to a productive G20 summit, which Japan hosts this year, and hopes the Chinese leader will attend the 2020 Olympic Games.
Domestically, Abe vowed to press ahead with an upcoming consumption tax rise from the current eight percent to 10 percent from October.
He also pledged $64bn on infrastructure spending as the nation’s roads and bridges become dilapidated and Japan routinely faces serious natural disasters such as flooding and earthquakes.