Will North Korea′s Kim meet with Japanese PM Abe? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.03.2018
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Will North Korea's Kim meet with Japanese PM Abe?

As US President Trump and South Korea's Moon prepare for summits with North Korean leader Kim, Tokyo fears being left behind. But Japanese PM Abe has little leverage over North Korea. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Japan is hoping to capitalize on the recent outbreak of diplomacy in Northeast Asia by arranging a face-to-face meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, although analysts suggest the Japanese leader has far fewer bargaining chips with which to entice the regime in Pyongyang to the bargaining table.

Abe announced that he would be keen to hold direct talks with Kim during a telephone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in late last week.

The Japanese leader has been one of the staunchest supporters of the international community taking a hard line against Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, but he has apparently recognized that Japan is being left behind as both Seoul and Washington engage with Kim.

Read more: Japanese PM Shinzo Abe warns North Korea talks could be ploy

Both Moon and Trump have agreed to meet Kim, with a summit that brings together the two Korean leaders penciled in for before the end of April. The talks between Kim and Trump are considered slightly more difficult to arrange, in part because of the unpredictability of both leaders, although there are suggestions that discussions are underway to hold the meeting in Sweden or Finland.

Read more: Sweden and North Korea end talks ahead of possible Trump-Kim summit

Abducted citizens

And while Japan is inevitably concerned about the North's nuclear and missile programs, it is likely that Abe's main area of focus will be the question of Japanese citizens who were abducted by the North in order to train future agents that would be infiltrated into Japanese society. Officially, Tokyo has evidence of less than 20 Japanese who have been kidnapped, although rights groups here have a list of more than 100 people who have gone missing in mysterious circumstances and they believe may well have been snatched by North Koreans.

"Both men are deeply unpredictable, but it does appear that the Trump-Kim meeting could happen and Japan does not want to be left out of the conversation," said Robert Dujarric, a professor of international relations at the Japan campus of Temple University.

"But, in reality, there is not too much for Japan and North Korea to discuss because Japan has little to offer the North in exchange for the release of the abductees – or even information on them – and there would appear to be little advantage for Kim to meet Abe," he told DW.

"Kim's priority is talking with the US and South Korea because those are the countries that he is facing militarily and diplomatically, which makes Japan far less important. Meeting Trump will be something of a victory for Kim because it will bestow legitimacy on a regime that has until now been seen as a global pariah and put him at the level of an international statesman," he said.

"Japan, on the other hands, just wants something from the North and they are unlikely to want to spend time talking about the abductees."

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Abductees' tragic tale

"The story of those who were abducted is tragic, but there is, in truth, not a lot that can be done if the North does not want to cooperate," Dujarric said.

The only possible leverage that could be applied, believes Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, is an offer to relax unilateral sanctions that Tokyo has imposed on the North specifically over the question of the abductees.

"I spoke to Abe on this very issue about a year ago and he said to me at the time that he would only go to a summit in North Korea if they guaranteed that they would allow the abductees to leave on the plane with him when it was over," Shimada told DW. "I see no reason why he would have changed his mind on this matter since then."

"The abductees are an extremely important issue for Abe personally and for Japan as a nation," he said. "There is no point on going to talks if they are merely going to be about procedures or trivial things."

Shimada concedes, however, that North Korea "despises" Japan and that convincing Kim to take part in talks will be difficult.

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Strictest sanctions

"The only thing that Japan has is the strictest sanctions in the world, which go far beyond the United Nations Security Council sanctions," Shimada said. "If the North is aware that relaxing those sanctions is on the table for discussion, then it is possible that they might agree to talk."

The last time leaders of the two nations met in person was in 2004, when the then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to Pyongyang for talks with Kim's late father, Kim Jong il, and managed to secure the release of a handful of Japanese abductees.

The situation has changed dramatically in the intervening 14 years, however, with bilateral relations icy. But if the North Korean leadership is genuinely interested in re-engaging with the international community – a big "if," analysts emphasize – then they will need to have a working relationship with Tokyo.

"Naturally, Kim is presently focused on his planned meeting with Trump," Shimada noted. "But if the preliminary talks between the US and North Korea make reference to the abductees issue and the US can insist that they are part of any future agreement, then it might happen."

Read more: Japan 'ghost ships' drifting from desperate North Korea

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