East Asia Compass

Japan’s North Korea Reset

20 May, 2019    ·   5588

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra comments on the discernible softening in the Shinzo Abe government's previously hard-line approach towards North Korea

On 3 May 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his readiness to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un 'without conditions' to 'end the long-running mistrust between their countries’, as reported by Japanese media. On 6 May 2019, he conveyed a similar message to the US during his telephonic conversation with President Donald Trump. This is an important reset in Japan’s approach towards North Korea, which earlier displayed an inflexible, hard-line policy. It seems that Abe is interested in making a course correction in his North Korea policy, which is a welcome sign for regional peace and stability.

Earlier, Abe linked any progress related to North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens and the country's denuclearisation with the possibility of summit meets with Kim, while arguing for a tough policy towards it. This approach led to Japan's isolation in the several developments that have taken place in East Asia over the past roughly two years. Since early 2018, three summit meetings have been held between North and South Korea, two between North Korea and the US, three between North Korea and China, four meets between South Korea and the US, and even one summit meet between Russia and North Korea. More meetings between the US-South Korea, North Korea-South Korea, and the US-North Korea are expected. These developments in regional politics indicate Japan's growing irrelevance in the process, which undoubtedly contributed to Japan's discomfort and its recent reorientation of policy. Japan, for its part, had previously reached out to the US and expressed willingness to be part of the evolving scenario with regard to North Korea, but its singular insistence on the abduction issue made it impossible for the US to bring it on board.

Abe had no option but to review and revise his approach amidst this growing isolation. The change was first visible when, in the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, Abe spoke about being "ready to break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea" and "meet face to face with Chairman Kim Jong-un." He made several gestures to convey to North Korea Japan's readiness to deal with it directly. Even though Japan extended sanctions against North Korea for another two years on 9 April 2019, the changed Japanese posture was underlined again in the Japanese Diplomatic Blue Book released on 23 April 2019. The document removed references to applying"‘maximum pressure" on North Korea, which has been a constant feature for almost a decade. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that it has been done because of "significant developments" that have taken place on with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue, such as the two summits between the US and North Korea. It is also important to keep in mind that in March 2019, in another significant step, Japan did not propose a resolution condemning North Korea at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which it has been doing continuously since 2007.

Thus, it may be concluded that over the past few months, Shinzo Abe has moving towards demonstrating a more pragmatic and conciliatory posture vis-à-vis North Korea. However, Japan must be prepared to sustain this new attempt at engagement for a considerable period of time to harness results, as in the short-run, there could be dissatisfactory responses from North Korea. For example, North has tested short-range missiles on 4 May and 9 May 2019, after a long period of moratorium. Despite this, the US and South Korea have been cautious in their reactions in the understanding that  the process of denuclearisation and engagement with North Korea will not be linear. This is a fact Japan also must acknowledge.  

There are a few acknowledgements, in fact, that would be useful to keep in mind. First, patience and consistency in approach by keeping an eye on the bigger picture will certainly help Japan. Second, Japan is expected to bring on board more positive agenda items as well as instil trust in the process to help carve a security contributor role for Tokyo, for which it already has the capacity and resources required. Third, Japan has to reset its relations with other countries in the region and otherwise, such as China, Russia, and South Korea. To evolve a long-term constructive approach towards North Korea, more frequent and in-depth coordination with these countries is important.

Finally, although it is premature to conclude how serious Japan is about the changes to its North Korea policy, and whether it is in fact ready to make the necessary re-adjustments to its regional policy approach, these recent developments are still a positive development that must be highlighted, and appreciated.  

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.