Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has held talks with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington in advance of the first ever U.S.-North Korea summit scheduled for next week.
The Japanese and U.S. leaders agreed at the meeting that they will not lift sanctions on North Korea until Pyongyang initiates specific actions toward denuclearization. Moreover, Trump promised to bring up the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents during the summit at the request of Abe, according to sources familiar with the talks.
At a news conference following the meeting, the prime minister emphasized that Tokyo and Washington have "completely agreed" on their response to Pyongyang.
It is appropriate that Japan and the United States coordinated their common goals and confirmed their basic positions on the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit talks.
However, the U.S.-North Korea summit may not necessarily produce the results that Japan and the United States desire.
Trump has been inconsistent in negotiations on the U.S.-North Korea summit. The president promptly agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but later announced that he would cancel the summit. Trump then reversed his stance and agreed to meet with Kim, saying it would mark "the beginning of a negotiating process" with North Korea.
The president suddenly stopped using the phrase, "maximum pressure," which Tokyo and Washington had emphasized, and adopted a reconciliatory attitude toward Pyongyang.
As midterm elections are scheduled for November in the U.S., Trump could emphasize that the U.S.-North Korea summit was a success after only shaking hands with Kim, regardless of the content or outcome of the talks.
There is a high possibility that the outcome of the meeting will not meet Japan's expectations. In such a situation, Japan's diplomacy will be tested.
If North Korea were to stick to its position to take "gradual and simultaneous" steps for denuclearization and efforts to verify if North Korea has achieved denuclearization were to be put on the back-burner, the threat Pyongyang's nuclear weapons pose to Japan and the world would not disappear.
If the United States were to prioritize North Korea's dismantling of intercontinental ballistic missiles while ultimately aiming for total abolition of the country's missile program, hundreds of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles targeting Japan would remain.
Even if Trump understands the abduction issue and raises the matter during his talks with Kim, the issue can be settled only between Japan and North Korea.
However, if the outcome of the summit is dissatisfactory for Japan, the talks will likely be a turning point that could bring about drastic changes in the East Asian situation.
The Japanese government's ability to work out a strategic diplomatic policy to respond to a new situation will be tested.
After the end of World War II, Korea was split into the North and South, which were under the influence of the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively. The origin of the move is Japan's annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. Therefore, Japan has a historical responsibility over issues relating to the Korean Peninsula.
The Korean War started when North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea in 1950. U.S.-led United Nations forces supported South Korea while China deployed troops to North Korea. Japan was affected by the matter and the war played an important role in shaping Japan's postwar politics. After the U.S. occupation of Japan ended, the two countries signed the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. The so-called 1955 political structure, characterized by a conflict between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the then largest opposition Japan Socialist Party, subsequently took root.
President Trump also mentioned the possibility of signing an agreement declaring that the Korean War is over. If that were to happen, it could lead to the signing of a peace agreement, making a plan to ultimately unify North and South Korea realistic.
Japan needs to get proactively involved in the peace-making process in East Asia, including the normalization of its diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.
Even though there is a conflict between North and South Korea, the Korean people share a common sentiment toward Japan because of Japan's annexation of Korea. Even if Korea were to be unified in the future, the formation of a country with anti-Japan sentiment would not contribute to Japan's national interests.
Japan should draw up a long-term peace-making plan centering on assistance and cooperation. Based on such a plan, Japan should carry out projects aimed at making peace in the region and gain the trust from the countries concerned.
For example, Japan should support the long-term denuclearization process including verification of denuclearization, removing nuclear arms and dismantling such weapons. Japan can do this by contributing funds to the International Atomic Energy Agency and taking other measures.
Japan should not only cooperate with the United States but also join hands with China, South Korea and Russia. Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono can proactively carry out diplomacy with these countries and propose to resume the long suspended six-party talks with the aim of making peace in the region.
Abe told a news conference that "I'm determined that the abduction issue must be settled by me and (Workers' Party of Korea) Chairman Kim."
The prime minister also said Japan "is prepared to settle the unfortunate past, normalize diplomatic relations with and extend economic cooperation" to North Korea.
Economic cooperation with North Korea, which continued to provoke Japan by repeatedly launching ballistic missiles, may draw objections from members of the public.
However, Japan can only occupy an important position in East Asia if it adapts to changes in the situation and shows a strategy of responding to the international situation following the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit.