Shut out of North Korea summit talks, Shinzo Abe may move to shut them down
Jeff Kingston says it may be too early to celebrate Donald Trump’s upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un, because the disgruntled Japanese prime minister may seek to stop them from happening – and might succeed
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is alarmed by diplomatic developments related to the denuclearisation of North Korea and is desperate to get involved in the talks so he can sabotage them. Whatever happened to regime change? From Abe’s perspective, treating Kim Jong-un as an equal is rewarding bad behaviour in ways that might imperil Japan’s security. He might find support for his hardline stance from John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, who has advocated attacking North Korea.
Abe’s heralded bromance with Trump is on the rocks. Even before Trump’s inauguration, Abe rushed to New York for an audience, becoming the first world leader to meet the president-elect. Abe did Trump an enormous favour by conveying his favourable impression to the media at a time when other leaders were aghast. His ego-stroking approach to Trump was astute, given Trump’s campaign comments that were quite critical of Japan on trade and security.
But Trump began his presidency by pulling the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership anyway, sparking concerns that Trump’s “America first” doctrine would cede power and influence to China in Asia and spark trade wars. Yet, on security, Abe got much of what he wanted, a US leader who would stand up to China and North Korea, and endorse Japan’s concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
But subsequent setbacks for Abe’s personal diplomacy with Trump underscore the risks of relying on an erratic and unreliable leader. First, Trump took aim at China by imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports that hurt its closest allies more than Beijing. Abe pleaded for an exemption to no avail, but is hoping he can convince Trump to relent when they meet in person.
But it was Trump’s abrupt volte face regarding talks with North Korea that left Abe chagrined and isolated. He was comprehensively outmanoeuvred and upstaged by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s diplomacy and was marginalised by the summitry of the North Korean leader, who first met South Korean envoys, then China’s President Xi Jinping, and plans to meet Moon on April 27 and then Trump in May or June.
It was a bitter pill for Abe to watch Seoul’s envoys announce to the world from the portico of the White House that Trump had agreed to meet with Kim, after trying so hard to be his Asian interlocutor. Abe had remained steadfast in his hardline anti-dialogue stance and thought he was on the same page as Trump – until he wasn’t.
Abe has remained out of sync, trying to make Japan relevant to a process that he opposes while pushing South Korea and the US to insist on Kim coming clean on the fate of dozens of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s who remain unaccounted for.
Abe’s political rise is closely associated with being an advocate for these abductees, and it is an important human rights issue, but other actors prioritise averting cataclysm on the Korean peninsula. North Korea has let it be known that it considers the abductee issue resolved and opposes having it on the agenda. Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited Seoul to lobby for South Korean support but came away empty-handed.
Abe’s stance gains no traction with Korean or Chinese counterparts, who wonder if he is more interested in scuttling the talks than making progress on denuclearisation, a replay of the doomed six-party talks (2003-2009) that Japan held hostage to the abduction issue. Abe’s main concern is that the talks might effectively normalise North Korea’s nuclear capability.
Recent changes in the White House convey even more disarray in Team Trump but may bode well for Abe. Trump fired national security adviser H.R. McMaster and secretary of state Rex Tillerson, voices of moderation on North Korea, and picked hardliners Bolton and Mike Pompeo to replace them. They are likely to be more supportive of Abe on abductees and Trump could use the human rights angle to vilify Kim and derail talks.
Abe’s worst nightmare is that the denuclearisation talks drag on inconclusively, with Kim making some concessions but not handing over the keys to the nuclear vault and in some way normalising North Korea as a nuclear power.
Tokyo does not believe that Kim’s charm offensive is aimed at North Korea unilaterally relinquishing its nuclear arsenal and allowing international inspectors to verify compliance by granting them unfettered access. Trump may hope that can be negotiated, but during his pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago next week, Abe will make the case that this is to fundamentally misread the situation.
Japan worries that some quid pro quo may be worked out that requires reciprocal drawn-out steps by the United States and North Korea to relinquish nuclear weapons, and that part of the deal would require the US to remove the nuclear umbrella of extended deterrence that currently applies to South Korea and Japan. Abe hopes to convince Trump that talks are a waste of time, risky due to unrealistic expectations on both sides, and that Kim is untrustworthy. That should not be too hard.
So while Moon’s peace express is steaming out of the station with everyone scrambling to get aboard, Abe wants to push the emergency stop button on this diplomacy.
In doing so, he offers Trump a useful escape hatch, enabling him to say he tried diplomacy and blame Kim while resuming the fire-and-fury brinkmanship that he and his new advisers are more comfortable with. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis will have his hands full as the remaining adult supervisor to see what this window of opportunity offers.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan