Sidelined on North Korea, Japan needs all of Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic skill to get back into the game

Rupakjyoti Borah says without a breakthrough in its talks with Pyongyang on the abductee issue, Tokyo must still strive to gain some influence over the denuclearisation process on the peninsula to ensure its concerns are addressed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 3:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 6:49pm

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This pretty much summarises Japan’s situation now in the aftermath of the Singapore summit between US President Donald Trump and the North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un on June 12. There are still a litany of worries for Tokyo.

Foremost is the issue of Japanese nationals who have been abducted by North Korea. Tokyo says 17 of its citizens have been taken. While five were repatriated in 2002, North Korea says the issue has been “resolved” and that eight have died, while four never entered North Korea.

Second, North Korea possesses hundreds of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which put all of Japan in its crosshairs. While the joint statement issued after the Singapore summit notes that “Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, there is no timeline for this process. There are many in Japan who worry that the US may only be interested in ensuring North Korea gets rid of its intercontinental ballistic missiles which can target the US, and not the shorter-range missiles Japan is worried about.

Last year, two North Korean missiles flew over Japan, sending officials into a spin. Japan even conducted evacuation drills simulating a North Korean missile attack. In addition, some of the North Korean missiles have landed in the sea surrounding Japan, within its exclusive economic zone.

The security environment for Japan has deteriorated to the extent that North Korea even threatened to “sink” Japan and reduce the US to “ashes and darkness”.

Watch: North Korea fires a second missile over Japan

Third, in the diplomatic “great game” in Northeast Asia, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was the first mover, while Trump was quick to spot an opportunity to reduce the threat to the US. Meanwhile, China has clawed its way back into the game with three meetings between President Xi Jinping and Kim, and Beijing even lent him a jet to fly to Singapore and back.

Air China charter hints Beijing is wind beneath Kim’s wings

In all this diplomatic opera, Japan has largely been relegated to the status of spectator.

Though the times are not favourable, Tokyo seems to have correctly read in which direction the winds are blowing.

First, it is trying to work out a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kim, which could possibly be in a third country. Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited Kim to Russia, and if both Kim and Abe are there for the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September, they could meet there.

Second, on the domestic front too, Abe has been itching to make some much-delayed changes to the Japanese constitution. He might also be tempted to further increase Japan’s defence budget, especially in the wake of Trump suspending the US-South Korea joint exercises, at the insistence of North Korea. The signs from this sudden move by the US may be ominous for Tokyo, too. The US-South Korea alliance is also a kind of bulwark against China for Japan and its unravelling may have direct consequences for Japan’s national security.

For the fiscal year 2018, Japan’s defence budget was 5.19 trillion yen (US$47 billion), an increase of 1.3 per cent from the previous year. Under Abe, Japan has already introduced new laws which allow its Self-Defence Forces to go to the aid of its allies.

Third, the latest developments may also lead to an improvement in Tokyo’s ties with Beijing. In May, a trilateral summit between China, Japan and South Korea was held in Tokyo. There are also some reports which indicate that Abe may be working on a plan to visit China this year, especially as it marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of a friendship treaty between the two countries.

China’s love-hate relationship with Japan is love again. Ahem

Fourth, the developments may also encourage Japan to strengthen ties with countries like India and Australia. India, Japan, Australia and the United States resurrected the “Quad” on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit and Asean Summit in Manila last November. India, Japan and the US have also just concluded the Malabar naval exercises off the coast of Guam.

‘Quad’ alliance going pear-shaped as Japan and India court China

Tokyo has its work cut out; it seems caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea. If it does not talk to North Korea, it risks being marginalised in the diplomatic sweepstakes. On the other hand, if it were to contribute financially to North Korea’s denuclearisation (through the International Atomic Energy Agency, as Abe has hinted), without Pyongyang resolving the abductee issue, Abe risks scoring an own goal on the home front. He may not recover from this blow, especially as he is seeking re-election later this year as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which could very well make him the longest-serving Japanese prime minister ever.

It seems to be a catch-22 situation for Tokyo now, but it is too early to write off Abe and his diplomatic acumen.

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest book is The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India? The views expressed here are the author’s own