Tough talk and the wrong priorities. That or something like that is what Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can contribute to the outcome of the upcoming inter-Korean summit. Indeed, limiting himself to repeating U.S. President Trump’s belligerent North Korea rhetoric in parrot-style while insisting on the resolution of the so-called ‘abduction issue’ will make sure that Abe and his government will have very little – if anything – to do with what will happen on the Korean Peninsula in the months ahead.
Since 2002, and the first North Korean–Japanese summit, Tokyo wants to know what happened to all of the Japanese nationals Pyongyang’s secret service abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, Pyongyang admitted to having abducted 12 Japanese citizens in order to ‘use’ them as Japanese language instructors for North Korean spies. Through a deal brokered between Pyongyang and then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, five of them were allowed to return to Japan in the early 2000s. While that agreement settled the issue as far as Pyongyang was concerned, Tokyo continues to insist that up to 100 Japanese citizens could have been abducted. For years Tokyo has urged Pyongyang to come up with plausible as opposed to bogus information on the fate of other kidnapped Japanese. To no avail as it turned out: Pyongyang decided to stick with the made up version, refusing to acknowledge the existence of any other abducted Japanese-citizens-turned-language-teachers.
Abe, obediently endorsing Trump’s hard-line North Korea policies, might have been plausible until Pyongyang was testing missiles and nukes on an increasingly frequent basis. However, now that both Seoul and Washington have agreed to talk to Pyongyang, Tokyo looks more often than not isolated. A recent photo opportunity and feel good meeting with Trump in Florida didn’t do the trick for Abe either. Quite the opposite as it turned out. During his visit at Mar-a-Lago, Abe begged Trump not to impose 25 percent import tariffs on Japanese steel and 10 percent on aluminium and to make the abduction a central point in the agenda of his meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un that might or might not take place in May or June. Abe went back home almost empty-handed: Japanese-made steel and aluminium will become 25 and 10 percent more expensive in the U.S. and whether Trump will remember to ask Kim about what happened to those Japanese citizens 30-40 years ago remains yet to be seen. On various occasions, the current US President has promised to “fight hard for the Japanese abductees” as he put it, but counting on Trump to represent your interests could – against the background of his unpredictable behaviour and his very short attention span – be like hoping for pigs to fly.
Then there is South Korea, onto which Tokyo seeks to impose its North Korea agenda. In April during a visit to South Korea, Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono asked South Korean President Moon Jae-in to raise the issue of the kidnapped Japanese nationals during the upcoming third inter-Korean summit. With success as it turned. While a statement released by the Blue House ahead of the summit in Panmunjeom did not mention the abduction at all, South Korean President promised Abe over the phone to raise the topic with Pyongyang.
If none of the above works to Japan’s advantage (which is likely), then there remains the possibility of heading towards the lion’s dent himself, Abe must have thought back in March. At the time, he and his government tabled the idea of a re-run of the 2002 bilateral summit with North Korea: the resolution of the above-mentioned ‘abduction’ issue and Pyongyang’s complete and verifiable denuclearization in return for cash. There were reports in Japanese newspapers that Pyongyang was hoping to squeeze up to $50 billion in aid out of Japan in the case of the normalization of bilateral relations. Or: from a Japanese perspective, $2 billion for the info on the fate of each of the above-mentioned 100 abducted Japanese nationals.
Speaking of fate. Prime Minister Abe is fighting for his political survival as he could soon be forced to resign over bad old Japanese-style cronyism involving himself and his wife. Since last year, Abe has been accused of having used his position and influence to facilitate the provision of financial favours and tax breaks to entrepreneurs with close ties to the Prime Minister and his wife. The snap elections that his ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) won with a landslide last December were supposed to silence the political opposition, which laments that handing financial favours to dubious businessmen goes beyond the mandate of a democratically elected Prime Minister. That clearly didn’t work. His public approval rates are already at record lows and the scandals he sought to sweep under the rug are talked a lot about in Tokyo these days.
In sum, Abe has become too much of a political liability on the verge of loosing his job to be able to exert any influence, let alone pressure, onto North Korea. While he will still be in office when the Inter-Korean summit takes place, he could be out of the same office if and when Trump and Kim will meet and dine over a hamburger in May, June or whenever.