It seems that the Japanese government is laying the ground for a visit to North Korea by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which if realized, could pose diplomatic challenges not only to South Korea but also other major players in the region.
The first indication of Abe’s visit to Pyongyang came from Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on June 3, five days after the two countries agreed to reopen the investigation into Japanese citizens abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We must think constantly what would be the most effective response and method in order to bring results,” Kishida told a parliamentary panel. “In doing so, we will consider (Abe) making a visit to North Korea,” he said.
Similar statements came in the following weeks, most recently from Isao Iijima, Abe’s special envoy on North Korea, and Keiji Furuyama, the minister in charge of the abduction issue. The latter official said last week that “without a qualm,” Abe is willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to resolve the abduction issue.
Japanese officials for now seemed to tie Abe’s possible visit to Pyongyang to the abduction issue, but it certainly would have wider repercussions on the geopolitical dynamics in the region.
Both sides certainly have things to gain from holding their first summit in 12 years. Japan could use its closer ties with North Korea as leverage in its dealings with both China and South Korea, with which it has been on dire terms recently due to territorial and historical disputes and Abe’s rightist policy drive.
North Korea may well believe that closer relations with Japan would help ease its isolation, which has been exacerbated by the international sanctions on its missile and nuclear programs.
Pyongyang, whose relations with China are not as good as they were, also seeks to drive a wedge into the South Korea-U.S.-Japan alliance on its weapons of mass destruction.
Japan’s rush to improve relations with Pyongyang, still under U.N. sanctions over its missile and nuke provocations, could hurt the international solidarity on the North’s military threat. This alone calls upon Tokyo to exercise caution in reaching out to Pyongyang.
That there has been little progress in their bilateral relations, including the abduction issue, since the first historic Pyongyang meeting between Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong-il in 2002 also should be a reminder that the North is good at gaining concessions and doing little in return.