Abe’s North Korea dilemma

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference to announce snap election at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan on 25 September 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai.)

Author: Sebastian Maslow, University of Tokyo

With his political profile closely linked to a pledge to resolve the ‘abduction issue’, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vigorously lobbied US President Donald Trump to address North Korea’s Cold War kidnapping campaign in the recent US–North Korea summit meeting.

Following Pyongyang’s official admission and return of five Japanese victims and their families in 2002 and 2004 respectively, and its claim that the remaining 12 abductees are no longer alive, North Korea considers the abduction issue to be resolved. Refusing to believe this claim, Japan insists on the return of the remaining abductees as a precondition for normalising diplomatic relations with and lifting economic sanctions on North Korea.

The unfolding detente on the Korean Peninsula is complicating Abe’s efforts to deal with the abduction issue. Abe must either follow the United States and radically revise Japan’s long-standing hard-line stance on North Korea, or continue to emphasise the resolution of the abduction issue as a precondition for progress in Japan–North Korea relations.

Trump’s announcement of support for Japan’s security concerns with North Korea prior to the Trump–Kim summit in Singapore appeared to suggest that Abe’s efforts to cultivate close ties with Trump would pay off. But Trump’s sudden and seemingly un-coordinated deviation from his ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has since raised major concerns in Japan, where the US–North Korea joint statement has been met with disappointment. The document makes no mention of the abduction issue, nor does it outline a clear roadmap to denuclearisation or the dismantlement of North Korea’s short- and mid-range missiles and non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

US–North Korea rapprochement has forced Japan to reassess its North Korea policy. Following Kim Jong-il’s formal admission of the abduction issue at the 2002 Japan–North Korea summit, domestic backlash …continue reading