German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's first official visit to East Asia comes at a critical geopolitical juncture and the North Korean problem is high on his agenda. Martin Fritz reports from Tokyo.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife, Elke Büdenbender, are scheduled to spend almost five days in Japan and South Korea. On Friday evening, the couple will be among the guests of honor witnessing the opening of the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
On Saturday he will meet with IOC President Thomas Bach and the German athletes participating in the sporting event.
The president's East Asia trip, however, begins earlier, with a visit to the Japanese capital Tokyo on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Japanese wouldn't have taken too kindly to Steinmeier visiting Seoul first.
As a G20 country, South Korea ranks lower as a German partner compared to Japan, a G7 member. Although Steinmeier's predecessor, Joachim Gauck, had visited Japan just 15 months ago with stops in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagasaki, the North Korean crisis must have been weighing on Steinmeier's mind for this detour to Japan.
Japanese PM Abe wholeheartedly supports Trump's harsh stance on North Korea and calls for continued sanctions
Germany as a mediator?
Tensions in East Asia are nothing new to Steinmeier, given his prior experience as German foreign minister. Unlike Europe after World War II, this region did not develop the security architecture necessary for peacebuilding. Instead, the Cold War continues on the Korean Peninsula.
Ever since tensions between North Korea and the United States intensified, Germany has been considered as a possible mediator, partly due to direct diplomatic relations between Berlin and Pyongyang. Steinmeier is well versed with the Japanese position, having visited Japan in 2014 and 2016 as foreign minister.
However, on Tuesday evening, the German president will have to negotiate a fine line in his talks with Japan's conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Although Abe has stressed on Germany's and Japan's joint commitment for peace and security, opinions differ on dealing with the North Korean crisis.
Abe wholeheartedly supports US President Donald Trump's harsh stance on North Korea and calls for continued sanctions, despite the rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang in recent weeks. The Japanese leader will likely reiterate this when US Vice President Mike Pence visits Tokyo on Wednesday.
In contrast, Steinmeier has often openly criticized Trump. In August 2016, for instance, in his role as Germany's foreign minister, he had called the then US presidential candidate a "hate preacher."
And even after assuming the German presidency, Steinmeier's opinion remained unchanged. In an interview in February 2017, he warned of the consequences of the new US foreign policy and voiced his deep worry about the changes being unleashed by the Trump presidency.
Furthermore, Steinmeier called on Europe to take on more responsibility and play an active role in shaping the global agenda. This could also be the underlying reason for the short talk on the "European perspective on regional stability in East Asia," which Steinmeier will deliver in Tokyo on Wednesday.
But Steinmeier would probably find a more attentive partner in South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, who, unlike Trump, calls for diplomacy to tackle the problem of North Korea's nuclear and missile development. Steinmeier will hold talks with Moon on Thursday, and he will also share Germany's reunification experiences with South Korean officials and analysts.
Writing's on the wall?
On the occasion of Steinmeier's visit, two graffiti artists - the German Justus "COR" Becker and the Japanese Joji "imaone" Tsuda - have jointly spray-painted a work of art on the outer wall of the German embassy in Tokyo. It aims to remind visitors that the wall that once divided Germany for 28 years, has been down for as long as it once stood.
Besides winter sports, graffiti and North Korea, there will two additional protocol highlights: Although officially on a working visit to Japan, Steinmeier will have an audience with Japan's Emperor Akihito (who will step down in spring 2019) and his wife Michiko in Tokyo.
Generally, audiences with the "heavenly sovereign" are only reserved for state visits. In Seoul, Steinmeier will be made an honorary citizen of the South Korean capital.
Despite his hectic schedule, Steinmeier has nevertheless set aside time for an old friend: he will meet with Japan's ex-foreign minister and his former counterpart, Fumio Kishida, in a Tokyo pub for a beer on Tuesday evening.