As he goes from summit to summit, next on Kim Jong-un’s list: Shinzo Abe

Kim Jong-un is busy these days, going from one summit to another. In less than three months, the 34-year-old leader of North Korea has had a summit meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, met Chinese President Xi Jinping three times, held two inter-Korea summit talks with his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, and accepted an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet in Vladivostok.

However, there has been one important leader missing from the summitry: Japan’s Shinzo Abe.

“Japan,” writes Todd Crowell of Asia Times, “is becoming an increasingly irrelevant player in the fast-moving diplomatic drama unfolding across Northeast Asia — assuming that one can even legitimately use the word ‘player’ to describe Japan.” Japan, according to Crowell, is currently suffering from an acute case of “Japan Passing.”

“United States,” says Martin Fritz of Deutsche Welle, “is leaving Japan in cold on North Korea. The outcome of the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore is a headache for Japan. Japan, for instance, could be faced with the prospect of a U.S.-North Korean agreement to dismantle long-range missiles, while remaining within reach of Pyongyang’s arsenal of medium-range missiles.”

Understandably, the Abe administration is reorienting its North Korea policy and taking necessary actions to get Japan back in the game. Shinzo Abe was well known for his hardline stance against North Korea. On the very same day of the U.S.-North Korea summit, however, Abe declared his readiness to meet with Kim Jong-un, “I’m determined that Japan has to solve the issue by talking directly with North Korea. I support the joint statement as the first step toward a comprehensive resolution of issues involving North Korea. The next step is for us to hold direct talks with North Korea.”

Then, on June 16, Abe signaled that Japan would likely help shoulder the costs of North Korea’s denuclearization, “As we stand to benefit from denuclearization, we must think about such matters,” announced Abe, “some kind of international agreement is conceivable.”

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” Japan’s Kyodo News reported, “has expressed readiness to support initial costs related to the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, Japan is also planning to provide additional funds needed to neutralize Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities and transport its nuclear materials. Moreover, Abe is aiming to propose a new international body to manage the funds provided by each country. The plans apparently reflect Tokyo’s eagerness to take the lead in the denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula.”

Prime Minister Abe’s ultimate goal is to normalize Japan’s diplomatic ties with North Korea.

Before Abe can move forward to improve Japan’s relations with North Korea, however, there is a big issue, perhaps bigger than the issue of denuclearization, in the Japanese-North Korean bilateral relations: The fate of 12 Japanese citizens abducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Tokyo officially lists 17 of its citizens as having been abducted by North Korean agents. Five abductees returned home in 2002. More than 12 million Japanese citizens had signed petitions in 2017, urging Abe to continue efforts to bring the rest home.

For Abe, writes Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center, “the decision to possibly change his government’s current position on the abductee issue will be particularly hard-after all, his advocacy for the resolution of the abduction issue was a trigger for his political rise.” If Abe fails to make progress on the issue of the abducted Japanese citizens in a meeting with Kim, says Lauren Richardson at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, “it could very well spell his political demise.”

Once again, the ball is in Kim Jong-un’s court. And once again, Kim Jong-un is on the move: During his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, Kim had signaled a possible shift in his position regarding the issue of Japanese abductees.

Why has the North Korean leader shifted his position?

“Now that Kim Jong-un has gotten the world’s attention, he wants more than assurances that his regime will be left alone to run North Korea,” writes Mitsuru Obe of Nikkei Asian Review, “he might be in position to extract more than $10 billion from Japan that he can then use as seed money to get its underdeveloped economy growing.” Tokyo normalized its relations with Seoul in 1965 and provided massive economic assistance-amounted to more than 1 trillion yen-to South Korea in exchange for nullifying South Koran reparation claims.

The day that Pyongyang normalizes its diplomatic relations with Tokyo will also be a big payday for North Korea.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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