During a campaign for the general election in fall last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the situation concerning North Korea a "national crisis" for Japan, as he fostered a sense of emergency among the public and used it to keep his administration afloat. However, following the recent agreement at the summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Abe government can no longer resort to such a method.
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Washington and Pyongyang have begun efforts toward establishing a new bilateral relationship following the first ever summit between the two countries. Japan-North Korea relations will inevitably move in tandem with U.S.-North Korea ties.
A joint statement signed by the U.S. and North Korean leaders made only vague reference to the denuclearization of North Korea, and made no mention of the missile issue. Yet, Abe had no choice but to express his support for the U.S.-North Korea accord because the prime minister has stated that Tokyo and Washington "have completely agreed" on their response to Pyongyang.
Japan-North Korea negotiations are part of the process of Japan settling postwar problems along with the issue of signing a peace treaty with Russia. Tokyo and Pyongyang have held intermittent negotiations but public criticism of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents heightened following then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's first visit to North Korea in 2002. Hurdles to the settlement of the abduction issue subsequently became higher due to North Korea's development of nuclear arms and missiles.
Japan can use economic cooperation to draw concessions from North Korea. However, such aid is not as attractive to North Korea as before since China's economic influence on Pyongyang has increased and South Korea is poised to provide large-scale assistance to the North. Therefore, Tokyo now faces tougher negotiations with Pyongyang than ever before.
Regardless, the Cold War structure that remains in Northeast Asia has begun to change following the latest U.S.-North Korea summit. Although there is criticism of the content of the agreement, the move undoubtedly marked the first step toward easing tensions in the region. Japan needs to proactively work to pursue a new order.
The fact that President Trump raised the abduction issue in his talks with Kim should be regarded as a positive move, but this will not lead to a fundamental solution. How Kim responded to the matter remains unclear. Therefore, Japan should not regard the move as a diplomatic achievement.
Prime Minister Abe has recently stated that Japan aims to normalize its diplomatic ties with North Korea based on the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration between the two countries. However, Abe's announcement appears to have come abruptly. Improvements in Tokyo's ties with Pyongyang are vital for Japan's security. Therefore, the Abe administration should display its enthusiasm about the issue by, for example, holding a meeting of the leaders of ruling and opposition parties in an effort to share the government's policy on North Korea.
Fortunately, the United States, South Korea and other countries concerned hope that Japan will improve its relations with North Korea. Tokyo should proactively work to boost its ties with Pyongyang and seek public understanding of the government's policy while cooperating with neighboring countries.