Japan is wise to avoid a quick fix approach on North Korea issue

By Zhang Yong Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/5 17:58:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Maximum pressure and attempts at dialogue are two fundamental features of Japan's policy on North Korea.

Since the first Kim-Trump summit held in Singapore last June, Japan has modified its North Korean policy, eyeing direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and high-ranking officials in Pyongyang. 

During his speech at the 4th Eastern Economic Forum Plenary Session in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "I am determined to take steps toward settling the unfortunate past with North Korea and normalizing relations. I too must break the shell of mutual distrust, take a step forward, and ultimately meet with Chairman Kim Jong-un."

Before the Hanoi summit, Tokyo's major concerns were denuclearization and past abductions of Japanese citizens. Japan stands for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, and tends to urge Pyongyang to change policies. Meanwhile, Abe hoped US President Donald Trump would convey Japan's position to Kim regarding the abduction issue. 

High expectations and anxiety were intertwined. Japan anticipated US' pressure on Pyongyang but was afraid it would only see compromise.

The prevailing view inside Tokyo circles regarding the Hanoi summit is that at least the result is better than either side making hasty compromises. During a phone call with Trump following the Hanoi summit last week, Abe said he supported Trump's decision to walk away from a deal with North Korea based on immediate sanctions relief.

"I know that I need to face Chairman Kim myself next," Abe told reporters. "Japan and the US will continue to cooperate closely toward resolving the abduction, nuclear and missile issues."

North Korean policy has been a component of Abe's postwar politics. Japan has a specialized institutional layout. In response to the changing situation, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs split its Northeast Asia Division. 

The First Northeast Asia Division deals with South Korean issues and the Second Northeast Asia Division is responsible for North Korean issues including negotiation preparation, data collection and analysis.

Right now, Japan has conjectured four scenarios.

First, there might be substantial progress on North Korea-US relations as denuclearization moves forward. Washington would gradually improve relations with Pyongyang while maintaining certain pressure on it. It would be difficult for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear facilities quickly, but it is possible to implement a nuclear freeze. Meanwhile, Pyongyang could focus on economic development.

Second, North Korea-US negotiations could break down entirely. Pyongyang could resume its nuclear and missile program and the peninsular situation would become worse again. Consequently, Washington could strike the peninsula, which would lead to military conflicts and wars.

Third, due to the high stakes of warfare, Washington and Pyongyang could initiate military confrontation rather than all-out conflict or war.

Fourth, with Pyongyang's compromise, Washington may acquiesce its nuclear force, making the nuclear issue permanent and immobilized.

In the first scenario, North Korea will need Japanese investment and technology. Despite Japan's insistence on denuclearization, normalizing relations with North Korea would be Tokyo's greater aim. With warming bilateral relations, issues like past abductions and Pyongyang missiles targeting at Japan would gradually be resolved. The remaining three prospects are what Japan is reluctant to see, especially the second one. 

Japan's future North Korean policy can be understood based on the following. 

First, Abe's policy adjustments reflect a risk-free strategy. Rather than abandoning maximum pressure, Tokyo would prefer seeking dialogues under maximum pressure. Japan knows better than to expect a quick fix.

Despite policy adjustments, Japan will stick to its consistent core idea toward North Korea. Japan would urge Pyongyang to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions and stop all acts of provocation. Besides, Japan would request that North Korea carry out verifiable and irreversible denuclearization and abandon its ballistic missile program. It would also cooperate with the international community when applying pressure on Pyongyang.

Japan's adjustments toward North Korea are driven by its strategic demands. Tokyo is undergoing a strategic transformation. Abe's ambition encompasses Japan's economic development and diplomatic achievements, with safety as his top concern. Achieving denuclearization and resolving past abduction issues will be the country's important strategic goals.

The author is a research fellow at Institute of Japanese Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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