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Editorial: Japan's diplomatic skills called into question as tensions rise over N. Korea

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump spoke on the phone and agreed to urge North Korea -- which has been working on its nuclear weapons program and launching missiles -- to exercise self-restraint.

The phone call was the third this month between the two leaders, and took place shortly before April 25, which in North Korea marks the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army. The phone meeting is believed to have had the aim of demonstrating the close collaborative relationship between Japan and the U.S., which are on high alert over the possibility that North Korea will conduct a sixth nuclear test or launch more ballistic missiles.

Abe and Trump also agreed that China should play a larger role in easing tensions, based on a shared understanding that to stop North Korea's provocative actions, it is crucial for China, which carries great economic influence toward North Korea, to take an unwavering stand.

Following his discussion with Abe, Trump also spoke on the phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi is said to have called on countries involved to handle the matter in a restrained fashion, and told Trump his intention to strongly oppose violations against United Nations Security Council resolutions, with North Korea in mind.

Japan and the U.S. have begun joint military drills in the western Pacific, using the U.S. Navy's USS Carl Vinson and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's ships equipped with the Aegis Combat System. Additionally, the U.S. is considering redesignating North Korea a state supporter of terrorism.

China, which wants to stop North Korea's nuclear tests, is also taking heavy-handed measures, such as stopping the import of North Korean coal. As North Korea's oil supplier, China's actions can turn into a life-or-death situation for North Korea.

Looking back on what has led up to the current state of affairs, it remains unclear whether North Korea will abandon its nuclear and missile programs. There are concerns that tensions could rise even further if North Korea fails to soften its stance.

The number of people accessing Japan's Cabinet Secretariat Civil Protection Portal Site, a website that offers instructions on evacuation in the event Japan comes under a missile attack, has soared, and the Japanese government is in the process of making specific preparations to protect Japanese nationals in South Korea.

While preparing for a worst-case scenario, Japan should be making its best diplomatic efforts so that it does not have to put its preparations into practice. Prime Minister Abe is set to visit Russia soon. Amid deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia, Abe should appeal directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin to join in forming a unified front against North Korea.

The issue of North Korea is deeply intertwined with the maintenance of peace and security in East Asia. Cooperation among Japan, China and South Korea is indispensable, but Japan does not have strong ties with either China or South Korea, and concerns remain about whether Japan can communicate smoothly with its two neighbors in the event of an unexpected emergency.

A ministerial-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council is set to be held regarding North Korea in the U.S. It is important for Japan to cooperate with the U.S., but the question is whether it can capitalize on its own diplomatic relations with Russia, China and South Korea. Japan's diplomatic prowess is being called into question.

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