Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s willingness to engage with North Korea on a high-level basis has sparked concerns among its allies, the United States and South Korea. While Kishida hopes to resolve the long-standing issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea through direct communication and a potential summit with leader Kim Jong Un, experts fear that these diplomatic overtures could strain the trilateral alliance and allow North Korea to exploit the situation.
Pyongyang has not yet rejected Kishida’s offer for dialogue, but behind-the-scenes progress appears minimal, leading to apprehensions that North Korea might use talks with Japan to drive a wedge between the alliance partners. The recent participation of North Korea’s envoy in a ministerial meeting in Jakarta, attended by Japan, did not result in any significant contact between the two countries.
A Balancing Act for Japan
Japan must exercise caution in its engagement with North Korea to ensure that it does not undermine the collective efforts of Tokyo, Washington, and Seoul to pressure North Korea into halting its missile and nuclear activities. While Kishida’s pursuit of dialogue is driven by the desire to address the abduction issue, North Korea’s focus remains on enhancing its military capabilities, particularly with South Korea’s conservative government in power.
Calls for Diplomatic Resumption at ASEAN Regional Forum
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi utilized the ASEAN Regional Forum, a major political and security conference in Asia, to condemn North Korea’s recent international ballistic missile test and urge the country to resume substantial dialogue with concerned nations. However, North Korea’s foreign minister was absent from the conference due to the ongoing border closure aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
During the forum, North Korea’s ambassador reiterated the country’s incompatible stance with Japan’s view, providing no opportunity for direct contact with the Japanese delegation. Despite the positive interpretation by Japanese media, some experts believe that North Korea’s response effectively amounted to a refusal to engage in dialogue, setting unacceptable preconditions that Japan cannot accept.
Assessing the Current Situation
Although there is speculation about a potential backdoor negotiation between Japan and North Korea, skepticism remains regarding the outcome of a leaders’ meeting unless North Korea changes its stance on the abduction issue. Additionally, the timing of Kishida’s summit proposal could strain Japan-South Korea relations, as President Yoon Suk-yeol has made considerable efforts to improve ties with Tokyo.
Experts suggest that Japan should not rely solely on the United States and South Korea to address the North Korean nuclear threat but should pursue long-term engagement and denuclearization through dialogue. Despite the challenges and concerns, Japan believes it has a just cause to engage with North Korea directly.
As Japan expresses its willingness to engage with North Korea, concerns mount among its allies about the potential repercussions on regional stability and the efficacy of pressuring North Korea to cease its missile and nuclear activities. Achieving a delicate balance between resolving the abduction issue and maintaining the trilateral alliance will be crucial for Japan in navigating the complex diplomatic landscape with North Korea.