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[New Analysis] Why does Kishida still want to meet Kim Jong-un?

Experts point to Japanese PM's low ratings, desire for diplomatic achievement, preparation for change in US presidency

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : April 8, 2024 - 15:53

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Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a group interview ahead of a planned summit next week with US President Joe Biden, in Tokyo on Friday. (Reuters) Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a group interview ahead of a planned summit next week with US President Joe Biden, in Tokyo on Friday. (Reuters)

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's steadfast pursuit of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, despite Pyongyang's unequivocal public refusals to engage with Japan and address the abduction of Japanese citizens, is primarily intended to resonate with the domestic audience, experts in Seoul said Monday.

Another objective for Japan could be preparing for the potential revival of a summit between the United States and North Korea if Donald Trump is elected president in the November presidential election.

Kishida said his government was making "high-level approaches" to arrange a meeting with Kim to resolve "outstanding issues" and promote stable relations between the two countries in his interview with CNN released Sunday before Kishida's trip to the US from April 8 to 14.

This is not the first time Kishida has expressed his desire to meet Kim.

Speaking at Parliament in March, Kishida emphasized the importance of top-level talks for resolving issues, such as the abduction issue, in Japan-North Korea relations. Kishida stated, "This is why we have been making various approaches to North Korea at the level directly under my control, as I have said in the past."

However, Kishida's remarks in the interview notably followed a series of statements from North Korea in late March, attributed to the North Korean leader's sister, Kim Yo-jong, and Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, rejecting any contact with Japan.

Choe claimed that North Korea "has nothing to solve regarding the 'abduction issue' insisted upon by Japan, and furthermore, it has neither the responsibility nor the will to make any effort for it," in a statement issued on Mar. 29 in response to Kishida's parliamentary speech.

Choe also emphasized that the North Korea-Japan dialogue "is not a matter of concern" to North Korea, adding that North Korea "will not allow any attempt of Japan to contact the former."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (right) smiles while inspecting the launch of a Hwasongpho-16B, a new type of intermediate-range solid-fueled ballistic missile equipped with a newly-developed hypersonic gliding warhead, on April 2, 2024, in this photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency the following day. (Yonhap) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (right) smiles while inspecting the launch of a Hwasongpho-16B, a new type of intermediate-range solid-fueled ballistic missile equipped with a newly-developed hypersonic gliding warhead, on April 2, 2024, in this photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency the following day. (Yonhap)

According to experts on Japan in Seoul, Kishida's persistent attempts to arrange a meeting with Kim, despite Pyongyang's firm stance, are primarily aimed at bolstering the Japanese prime minister's low approval rating. His approval rating dipped below 20 percent and remained around the 20 percent threshold during the first quarter of this year.

"Despite positive trends in various domestic economic indicators, the populace isn't experiencing the benefits due to inflation. Consequently, there's substantial domestic discontent in Japan regarding (Kishida's) capabilities of policy performance and achievements, resulting in notably low approval ratings," Yang Kee-ho, a professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University, told The Korea Herald.

"In my opinion, he aims to pursue diplomatic achievements, whether through the US-Japan summit or high-level negotiations between North Korea and Japan, in order to give his government a boost."

Jin Chang-soo, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Sejong Institute, also emphasized another factor is a pressing need to resolve the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, highlighting the sense of time pressure.

Jin stressed the growing urgency of resolving the matter and the "changing dynamics resulting from the aging of the families of abduction victims."

The Japanese government has identified individuals as victims of abduction by North Korea, with five of them returning to Japan in 2002, while the remainder have not.

Lee Ki-tae, director of the Global Strategy Research Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, emphasized that addressing abductee issues has been a longstanding challenge for Japanese prime ministers throughout history.

"So, Japan is persistently demonstrating to its citizens its efforts to resolve the issue. Particularly through the Japan-US summit, it seeks to reaffirm its desire to receive cooperation from the US once again," Lee told The Korea Herald, highlighting the fact that the interview was released before Kishisda's trip to the US.

Combination picture showing former US President Donald Trump attending the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., November 6, 2023 and U.S. President Joe Biden participating in a meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 1, 2024. (Reuters) Combination picture showing former US President Donald Trump attending the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., November 6, 2023 and U.S. President Joe Biden participating in a meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 1, 2024. (Reuters)

Yang further elucidated that Kishida's repeated attempts to arrange a meeting with Kim can also be viewed as preparation for the potential change in the US presidency in the run-up to the US presidential election in November.

"Furthermore, Japan aims to secure its position in preparation for a potential North Korea-US summit in the event of a Trump presidency," Yang said.

"With South Korea's relations with North Korea completely severed at the moment, Japan seems to be striving to assume a diplomatic leadership role and set the stage for navigating the situation after the next presidential election."

Jin also highlighted "Japan's diplomatic urgency in resolving the abduction issue" as a critical factor. He noted that failure to resolve the abduction matter, particularly amid progress in North Korean nuclear negotiations, could adversely affect Japan's broader policy towards North Korea.

However, experts also disagree on whether a potential summit could reverse the downward trajectory of Kishida’s approval rating.

Yuji Hosaka, a professor at Sejong University, suggested that the meeting itself could potentially boost Kishida's approval rating, even if it does not yield concrete outcomes on the abductee issue.

Hosaka pointed out that no Japanese prime minister, neither Shinzo Abe nor Yoshihide Suga, has held a summit with North Korea in the past 20 years. The last such meeting occurred during Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to North Korea in 2002 and 2004, despite director-level talks between Japan and North Korea being held in Stockholm in 2014.

"That's why meeting with Kim Jong-un is considered quite groundbreaking in itself for Kishida," Hosaka said. "So even just the meeting alone will be extensively covered by the Japanese media. There also could be many hopeful aspects emerging from the meeting. It's not necessary to resolve everything at once."

Yang forecasted that the summit itself would not alter Kishida's destiny, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is scheduled to hold a vote for a president when Kishida's current term as LDP president ends in September.

After the election of the next LDP president, a special session of the National Diet will convene to appoint the prime minister through a majority vote, and the newly elected leader will then assemble a cabinet. Subsequently, there is a possibility of general elections occurring shortly thereafter.

"Nevertheless, irrespective of any unfolding events, Prime Minister Kishida's tenure is likely to conclude in September," Yang said. "With such low approval ratings, it's simply impossible to hold general elections with Kishida at the forefront."

Fumio Kishida Prime Minister of Japan and President of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) delivers a speech during the party convention on March 17 in Tokyo, Japan. (Pool via Reuters) Fumio Kishida Prime Minister of Japan and President of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) delivers a speech during the party convention on March 17 in Tokyo, Japan. (Pool via Reuters)

Lee suggested that a summit could raise Kishida's approval rating if it occurs, but it may not have the same significant impact as it did for then-Prime Minister Koizumi in 2002. Following Koizumi's trip to Pyongyang in 2002 for the first Japan-North Korea summit, five abductees were returned to Japan.

"For the approval ratings to truly soar, it would necessitate the confirmation of the abductees being alive and their successful repatriation. Only then, akin to the era of Koizumi, would we witness a significant rise (in his approval rating)," Lee said.

However, Lee also raised questions about the feasibility of Kishida holding a summit with Kim amid mounting domestic challenges, including a slush fund scandal that has rocked Japan's ruling LDP.

"Prime Minister Kishida currently finds himself in a situation where he has his hands full resolving domestic political issues," Lee said.

"Given the current chaotic domestic situation, the necessary conditions for facilitating a meeting simply do not exist domestically at the moment."