Abe's North Korean Advances

Why Japan Has the United States and South Korea Worried

Abe arrives in Bali to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, October 2013.
Abe arrives in Bali to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, October 2013. (Edgar Su / Courtesy Reuters)

Before the year is out, the world could witness Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. As absurd as the idea might sound, Abe has repeatedly indicated his willingness to visit Kim, provided that Pyongyang makes some concessions in the long-running saga of several Japanese nationals who were abducted and allegedly brought to North Korea decades ago. An Abe-Kim summit would be greeted with suspicion from the United States and South Korea, who might fear that Tokyo was falling into a North Korean trap meant to weaken trilateral deterrence efforts. North Korea’s intentions must always be assessed cautiously; however, if they do meet and Abe secures a face-saving political concession from Pyongyang, Japan could finally put an end to the Kim regime’s blackmail.  

During the 1970s and 1980s, 17 Japanese nationals were allegedly kidnapped off the west coast of Japan and other areas around the world by North Korean agents and brought to live in North Korea. In 2002, after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang, five Japanese citizens were returned. North Korea claimed that the remaining suspected abductees were dead, missing, or had never been taken to begin with. Koizumi visited North Korea once more in 2004, but Pyongyang insisted that the issue was closed. Abe, likewise, failed to break the stalemate during his first stint in office, from 2006 to 2007. It didn’t help matters that, only a month after he took office, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

In the years since, Japan’s relations with North Korea have only worsened. Additional missile and nuclear tests and stagnancy on the abduction issue have fuelled popular sentiment against North Korea. Japan bears some of the blame, too: a string of ineffectual leaders in Tokyo were unable to harness the necessary diplomatic flexibility to reengage with Pyongyang. Abe, who won a decisive victory to become prime minister in 2012, changed this trend. He has used this momentum to push forward on a number of dormant foreign policy issues, including restoring ties with North Korea.

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