Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe survived a 2018 marked by scandal, corruption and political isolation to win re-election as leader of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. With the stage set for Abe to lead the country until 2021, he stands to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history.
Secure in the knowledge that he will not have to contest future elections, Abe now looks to shaping his political legacy. Domestically, the Japanese leader is well positioned to achieve his long-prized goal of reforming the Japanese Constitution, aimed at the re-appropriation of the military as an instrument of foreign policy.
But succeeding at home requires Abe succeed overseas. An ongoing U.S.-China trade war and deteriorating relations with South Korea means that Abe is going to have his hands full. At the top of the list of his 2019 foreign policy priorities will surely be North Korea.
Fire, fury, and missed opportunities
2017 was the year of ‘fire and fury’ and Japan was well positioned to benefit from the rhetorical and security escalations in East Asia. North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests provided a means for consolidating domestic support for his proposed constitutional revision of Article 9, to make Japan a ‘normal’ country again. As the U.S. and North Korea traded barbs, Abe rushed to support the Trump administration’s hard-line approach.
But the winds changed in the year that followed, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un went from bond villain to international statesman. North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, three meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a further three with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, and a much feted Trump-Kim summit gave hope for shifting the discourse on East Asia from impending war to peace and reconciliation.
Japan has not been party to the historic meetings. Conspicuous in its absence, Tokyo has been diplomatically isolated, confounded by what analysts have labelled ‘Japan’s North Korea dilemma’. In short, Abe has refused to engage with North Korea until Kim Jong Un resolves North Korea’s 1970s abductions of Japanese citizens.
If Japan’s Prime Minister stands fast on this issue, he risks missing the chance to participate in reshaping the geo-political landscape of East Asia. But if he changes tact, he puts himself at the mercy of a capricious North Korea.
If Tokyo and Pyongyang are to restart a dialogue, Abe needs to navigate deeply entrenched animosities between the two countries, a lack of a coherent strategy towards North Korea, and the realization that Japan has little to offer Pyongyang, short of a normalization of relations. He risks wasting significant political capital in a diplomatic volley that could alienate his voter base.
History shaping foreign policy
2018 may have been the year of a smiling Kim Jong Un, but not everyone has been convinced by the new-look North Korea. Citing a history of duplicity, Japan is reticent to join the international community in lauding a mainstream North Korea. Japan’s refusal to soften its stance has been matched by claims in North Korean state media that Japan is “Trying to free-ride on the winds of peace”.
Inter-state frictions between Japan and North Korea have their roots in two unsettled events: Japan’s imperial expansion and North Korea’s abduction project.
Japan and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations with the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations, which also addressed the damages of Japan’s (1910-1945) colonization of the Korean Peninsula. There have been no such reparations and normalization of relations between North Korea and Japan. Instead, memories of colonization are fresh in the minds of North Koreans, deployed by the government to justify its hostility towards outside powers and used to keep its citizenry on a war-ready footing.
Anti-Japanese sentiment in North Korea is mirrored in Japan. Hate speech groups react to North Korean provocations by attacking the country’s ethnic Korean community. In 2002, for example, Pyongyang’s admission that North Korean agents had kidnapped Japanese citizens galvanized Japanese conservatives and contributed to propelling Abe into power. Buoyed by the electoral benefits of anti-Korean feelings, Tokyo has been slow to legislate on anti-Korean racism.
Recent events have shifted in Kim’s favor. Knowing that it holds all the cards, Pyongyang is unlikely to make things easy on its old foe.
North Korean state television still frequently airs programs discussing the horrors of Japanese colonization
A North Korea strategy
A second challenge for Abe is a lack of a coherent strategy in dealing with Pyongyang. Japan and North Korea never established official diplomatic relations. Political negotiations and trade were instead conducted using track two diplomacy through the DPRK-linked ethnic Korean organization Chongryon, or organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Decades of backchannel diplomacy and informal, small-scale trade through families divided between Japan and North Korea mean that the Japanese government has always had deniability and distance from its truculent neighbor. This relationship only lasted, however, until the DPRK’s abductions project became public knowledge.
The abduction revelations froze almost all DPRK-Japan informal diplomatic relations. Japan is currently refusing diplomatic concessions until Kim Jong Un returns missing Japanese alive – what Japan considers as a ‘complete resolution’ – and North Korea insists that there are no such individuals in the country.
Specifically, Pyongyang’s admission on the issue formalized the absence of diplomatic relations and set specific goals that needed to be met before relations could be established.
In recent years, the abductions issue provided the Japanese government justification for a tough approach toward Pyongyang. In line with Trump’s ‘Maximum pressure,’ Tokyo pursued sanctions and diplomatic isolation aimed at forcing the regime to give up its nuclear weapons and account for decades of clandestine activities in Japanese territory.
Playing catch-up since Trump broke with precedent and reached out to Kim Jong Un, Abe recently signaled a possible change in DPRK-policy, announcing that he is ready to meet directly with North Korea’s young leader to ‘break the shell of mutual distrust’.
His conciliatory message again brings Tokyo into line with the U.S., moving away from a hardline approach towards its neighbor, but it also raises the question of what, if anything, Japan can offer to North Korea without appearing to give away the store.
North Korea is now in a stronger strategic position than at any time in the recent past. Pyongyang recognizes that isolating Tokyo potentially weakens the Seoul-Tokyo-Washington security axis. In this situation, Japan has little to tempt North Korea, short of the promise of economic aid and the normalization of diplomatic relations.
If Abe’s much-desired talks are to happen, Pyongyang will likely demand an apology for the atrocities committed by Japan during the colonial period. Tokyo could ask for a corresponding apology for the abductee issue. This would likely be accompanied by humanitarian aid and low-level cultural and sporting exchanges, with promises for a roadmap to a normalization of relations in the long term.
To satisfy critics at home, Abe could point to the anticipated advantages of re-positioning Japan at the centre of geopolitical decisions in East Asia while arguing that North Korea is taking responsibility for its past transgressions.
Making or breaking a legacy
Tokyo has shown a healthy skepticism about embracing the new-look North Korea. But a lack of policy-making flexibility has prevented initiatives that would have had Abe standing shoulder-to-shoulder with allies in the region as political events unfolded.
In the twilight years of his political career, Abe is about to bet on a new course of relations with Pyongyang that will either make or break his political legacy.
Ensuring Japan’s participation in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula requires that he compromise on a cornerstone issue of his leadership by watering down demands for a ‘complete resolution’ of the abduction issue.
Success will provide Abe with the reserves of political capital required to reduce the constitutional limits on Japan’s military power.
Failure will mean that Abe becomes the ‘almost’ Prime Minister: almost settling the past with North Korea, almost resolving the abductions, almost reinserting Japan into the nuclear negotiations, almost ending Japan’s long standing pacifism. Almost.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: The Kremlin
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