Diplomatic affairs pertaining to North Korea's development of missiles and nuclear weapons are becoming increasingly hectic.
Following a summit between the leaders of China and North Korea at the end of March, this month has seen meetings between the foreign ministers of Russia and North Korea, Japan and South Korea, and Japan and China.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now set to visit the United States, and meet with U.S. President Donald Trump for two days. This is probably one of the more significant meetings among summits and ministerial talks that are taking place in the run-up to the summits between the leaders of North and South Korea on April 27, and between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the end of May or in early June.
How will the parties face the first ever summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea? The upcoming talks between Abe and Trump are more important than normal in terms of Tokyo and Washington outlining their approach and increasing their negotiating power.
Abe has stressed that Japan and the United States are 100 percent together regarding their perceptions of the North Korean situation and their policy on handling the matter.
In approaching North Korea, which has repeatedly conducted nuclear and missile tests, a stance of applying the "maximum amount of pressure" and refraining from engaging in "dialogue for the sake of dialogue" is no doubt effective to some degree. But the interests of Japan and the United States are not completely aligned due to geopolitical differences between the two countries. And because of those differences, threats are received in different ways.
For Japan, the staging of talks between the U.S. and North Korea came out of the blue. And the picture that Trump envisions is not clear.
North Korea has declared it is open to denuclearization. As countries now arrive at a stage of dialogue, searching for a solution, it is probably necessary to put the perceptions of each side together once again in depth and make an effort to fill the gaps.
First is the issue of missiles. Last year, North Korea became fixated upon firing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Uneasiness rose in the United States, while criticism of North Korea grew stronger. It would not be strange if Trump were to place priority on having North Korea halt development of ICBMs during his meeting with Kim.
For Japan, however, the threat is the large number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) deployed by the North. Even if the talks bear fruit in halting the development of ICBMs, if IRBMs remain deployed, then it could create a gap between Japan and the United States, and ruffle the Japan-U.S. alliance.
U.S. military personnel are deployed in Japan. It is important for Prime Minister Abe to stress to Trump that IRBMs also represent a threat to the U.S., and seek understanding on this point.
Then there are the details of denuclearization.
Even after the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and give up certain types of nuclear reactors, and the joint statement following the Six-Party talks in 2005, North Korea continued on a path of nuclear development and its nuclear weapons program could not be dismantled.
Japan and the U.S. have maintained as a basis North Korea's complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear program. In concrete terms, that includes inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the elimination of nuclear material and the dismantling of related facilities.
North Korea has declared that denuclearization is a matter to be handled concurrently, in stages. This is a process called "action for action," under which sanctions are lifted and other such actions taken every time North Korea moves a step forward in the elimination of its nuclear weapons. With this method, however, there are lingering concerns that North Korea will simply be buying time like in the past. What is different from before is the fact that North Korea has already declared it has nuclear weapons and has deployed a large number of missiles. Considering the effectiveness of strengthening sanctions, Japan and the U.S. should probably solidify their approach, lifting sanctions, in principle, after denuclearization.
There is also the matter of Japan's unique situation with regard to North Korea's past abduction of its citizens. Since North Korea agreed in Stockholm in 2014 to reinvestigate the abductions, there has been no progress on the issue. Prime Minister Abe should once again stress the urgency of the situation.
Trump has an interest in the abduction issue, and there is a high chance that he will bring it up at the talks between the U.S. and North Korea. But if Trump seeks to raise the issue in connection with a U.S. trade deficit with Japan, caution is necessary.
Prime Minister Abe, too, must not agree to any bargaining, making concessions in trade to produce results with regard to the abduction issue as his administration suffers due to favoritism scandals involving school operators Kake Educational Institution and Moritomo Gakuen.
If the talks between Washington and Pyongyang progress, then Japan must be involved in the process under which North Korea gives up nuclear weapons and in the security of Northeast Asia in the future.
There are some reports that North Korea intends to return to the Six-Party talks. If that is the case, collaboration not only with the U.S., but with China, South Korea and Russia will be important. Japan also needs to make its own effort to rebuild relations with both China and South Korea.
At the same time, solidarity of international society is indispensable. The reason North Korea softened is largely attributable to the fact that the United States and China together exerted pressure on the country, and international society went along with this approach. If the ranks fall apart, it will only benefit North Korea.
Japan cannot move the North Korean situation along by itself -- and the same goes for the U.S., China and other countries. And that's precisely why diplomatic solidarity is important.