Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has embarked on a challenging mission to realize a summit with North Korea as part of his efforts to consolidate support for his Cabinet ahead of a potential general election. However, experts and analysts remain skeptical about the feasibility of this endeavor in the near future.
Kishida, who refrained from dissolving the House of Representatives for a snap election at the end of the previous parliamentary session, has expressed his determination to address the longstanding issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s.
In late May, Kishida made an unexpected commitment to establish high-level negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang, aiming to pave the way for an early meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Nevertheless, the prime minister has not provided detailed information regarding the nature of these official talks.
Some lawmakers speculate that Kishida’s diplomatic initiative serves the dual purpose of improving his chances of winning the upcoming Lower House election and securing re-election as the president of the Liberal Democratic Party in September 2024.
Unfortunately, many observers believe that a summit between Kishida and Kim is unlikely to materialize, given the severed communication channels between Japan and North Korea since the bilateral accord on the settlement of the abduction issue was broken by Pyongyang in 2016. This agreement, known as the Stockholm agreement, was confirmed in 2014.
Since the breach, Japan has imposed increased sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear and ballistic missile development, contrary to United Nations Security Council resolutions. North Korea argues that the abduction issue has already been resolved.
Despite the fact that the United States, Japan’s key ally, engaged in dialogues with North Korea over denuclearization during Donald Trump’s administration, formal talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang have remained dormant.
Kishida’s tenure as foreign minister coincided with the signing of the Stockholm agreement, which has contributed to his unwavering determination to resolve the abduction issue, according to a well-informed source.
In an effort to facilitate the return of Japanese abductees, Kishida is open to providing humanitarian aid to North Korea if it proves effective, as stated by the source. A successful groundwork for a summit with North Korea would enhance Kishida’s reputation in foreign affairs and potentially lead him to dissolve the Lower House in the near future.
With no diplomatic ties between the two neighboring nations, Kishida appears to be pursuing secretive negotiations with North Korea, similar to the approach taken by a senior Foreign Ministry official who orchestrated Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s historic visit to Pyongyang in 2002.
According to Stephen Nagy, a professor at International Christian University, a summit between Japan and North Korea could be a possibility if Kishida commits to providing assistance in areas such as infrastructure and food, thereby strengthening the regime.
However, other political experts argue that Kishida’s efforts to arrange a meeting with Kim are likely to fail due to the increased hostility between North Korea and Japan following former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “maximum pressure” policy towards Pyongyang.
In 2014, under Abe’s administration, Japan reached the Stockholm agreement with North Korea, which involved relaxing sanctions in exchange for a comprehensive investigation into the abduction issue. Despite repeated delays and the suspension of the investigation, Japan imposed additional sanctions in 2016, leading North Korea to claim that the issue was already resolved.
While North Korea faces economic challenges and limited interaction with the current U.S. administration under President Joe Biden, its leader, Kim Jong Un, may attempt to leverage the abduction issue to seek concessions on sanctions from Japan, according to Stephen Nagy.
Negotiations between the United States and North Korea regarding denuclearization and sanctions relief have stalled since late 2019, as North Korea refused to comply with the U.S. demand to dismantle all of its nuclear facilities and programs.
Shortly after Kishida expressed his intention to initiate talks with Pyongyang, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official, through state-run media, stated that there is “no reason” for the two countries to refrain from meeting.
Nagy suggests that Japan could potentially play a role not only in fostering discussions with North Korea but also acting as an intermediary between the United States and North Korea.
However, other political experts hold a different view, suggesting that Kishida’s pursuit of a meeting with Kim will likely end in failure. This is due to North Korea’s increasingly hostile stance towards Japan following the “maximum pressure” policy implemented by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
During Abe’s tenure, the Japanese government struck the Stockholm agreement with North Korea in 2014. The agreement stipulated that Japan would ease sanctions in exchange for a thorough investigation into the abduction issue.
However, North Korea repeatedly delayed sharing the results of the investigation and eventually disbanded its team, suspending the probe in response to Japan’s imposition of additional sanctions in 2016, which were prompted by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.
Even after Abe resigned in 2020, Pyongyang continued to urge Tokyo to change its stance on the abduction issue. Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, emphasizes that the dispute remains a significant obstacle, making it unlikely that Kishida will meet North Korea’s expectations or convince Pyongyang to reconsider its position on the matter.
Despite North Korea’s economic difficulties and reports of deteriorating living conditions, the regime’s vulnerability does not necessarily translate into a softened stance on nuclear weapons, missile testing, or the abduction issue, says Kingston.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un has intensified North Korea’s nuclear and missile development activities, including plans for a military reconnaissance satellite launch. These actions have heightened Japan’s security concerns and prompted Japanese officials to increase pressure on North Korea.
While Japan seeks opportunities for secret negotiations with North Korea behind the scenes, should North Korea escalate its provocations, threatening regional peace and stability, the Japanese government may be forced to adopt a tougher stance, asserts a government source.
Since 2002, when five abductees were repatriated to Japan, the country has sought the return of the remaining 12 individuals officially recognized as having been abducted by North Korea.
In conclusion, Prime Minister Kishida’s attempt to realize a summit with North Korea faces considerable challenges. The severed communication channels between Japan and North Korea, along with the unresolved abduction issue, contribute to the skepticism surrounding the feasibility of such a summit. While some experts hold cautious optimism about the potential for discussions, others believe that North Korea’s increased hostility and its focus on nuclear development make a successful meeting between Kishida and Kim Jong Un unlikely in the near future.
Sources suggest that Kishida’s pursuit of diplomacy with North Korea serves multiple purposes, including bolstering domestic support and reinforcing his standing in foreign affairs. However, the complex history and contentious nature of the abduction issue pose significant obstacles to achieving a breakthrough in relations between the two countries.
The coming months will reveal whether Prime Minister Kishida’s efforts can overcome these challenges and pave the way for a meaningful dialogue between Japan and North Korea.