It is a critical time for the North Korean nuclear and missile issue, and South Korea, the US and other stakeholder states have accorded it their highest priority. Japan, however, is focusing its primary attention on the abduction of its citizens by North Korea, and has asked for the issue to be raised during the South Korea-North Korea and US-North Korea summit meets scheduled for April and May 2018, respectively. On 16 March, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised his concerns with over a telephonic conversation with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. On 17 March, the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano raised the issue again with his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha. On 2 April, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated that during the April summit meet between Japan and the US, Japan would request President Donald Trump to explore the possibility of a Japan-North Korea summit. Japan emphasised the abduction issue as the “most important task” in dealing with North Korea.
It is unfortunate that Abe is more concerned about domestic politics and is deliberately trying to deflect focus from the North Korean nuclear issue. Japan’s priority also emanates from a sense of being left out in dealing with North Korea, a trend referred to as ‘Japan passing’.
According to Japan, 17 of its citizens were abducted by North Korea between 1977 and 1983 (North Korea claims that 13 were abducted). Five of them have already come back to Japan. While the abduction of these individuals is highly condemnable and entirely North Korea’s fault, it is not appropriate to continue raising an issue that happened more than 35 years ago, part of which has been already resolved. The deliberate use of it, time and again, to derail efforts aimed at North Korea’s denuclearisation is imprudent. In fact, North Korea has abducted more than 3,800 South Koreans, and it is estimated that 485 are still alive in North Korea. However, the South Korean leadership has focused on the larger issues in dealing with North Korea. Seoul’s approach – that the future should be not be kept hostage to the past – does not imply a lack of concern for their citizens. Their interest in securing long-term regional stability in fact means quite the opposite.
The Japanese attempt to raise the abductee issue is irresponsible. It will not contribute in any positive way to international attempts to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons – in fact, Japan’s moves may play spoiler to the positive momentum established in recent months. Shinzo Abe has resorted to playing this card for two important reasons. First, he feels that the current dynamics around the North Korean nuclear issue have moved towards negotiation and engagement, and Japan has no role in it. He sees ‘Japan passing’ as detrimental to Japan’s regional standing. Perhaps it is believed that the ends will justify the means if the country is able to find an entry into the process. Japan is also concerned that if relative peace arrives with the amelioration of the nuclear threat and establishment of a US-China modus vivendi in dealing with the issue in a consensual framework, Japan would lose its aggressive posture’s raison d’etre. Two, Japan’s behaviour could also be linked with the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election in autumn this year. Abe’s approval ratings have dropped after the finance ministry’s document-alteration scandal and he may feel apprehensive about a third straight victory in the presidential election.
Japan appears desperate, and from the very announcement of an important breakthrough during the South Korean envoys’ visit to North Korea in early March, Japan has strategically and recurrently expressed its apprehensions. When the potential for summit meets between the US, South Korea and North Korea were announced, Abe hurriedly fixed up a summit meet with the US ahead of both. Japan has not asked for the inclusion of any positive content in these meetings and the deliberations are more likely to sow doubt at a time when the US is on board with South Korea’s engagement efforts towards North Korea.
Japan may be able to persuade Trump against a give-and-take deal with North Korea since there is a history of mistrust when it comes to North Korean peace offers, and there may also be doubt regarding South Korea’s capacity to achieve anything substantial. However, Abe must realise that his political gambit will cause significant damage to Japan as a responsible stakeholder, and it is time to re-focus attention away from smaller past issues, to the most pressing threat to East Asian regional stability today.