PM Shinzo Abe has dramatically toned down his anti-North Korea stance, but the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals is likely to remain a major sticking point between the two sides. Julian Ryall reports.
In his address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe eased his hard-line stance against North Korea, saying he is ready and willing to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, to bring an end to decades of mutual distrust and make "a new start."
Political analysts in Japan say Abe's comments suggest that there may well have been back-channel negotiations underway to organize a meeting between the leaders.
In contrast to his speech at the same forum a year ago — when he warned that the window for diplomacy with Pyongyang was closing — Abe struck a more conciliatory tone, saying he had been watching the debate over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with "the greatest interest."
But he did reiterate Tokyo's position that normalizing diplomatic relations between the nations cannot proceed unless the question of the North's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is resolved. Another major sticking point that needs to be resolved is the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Exploring the possible
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, said the idea of an Abe-Kim meeting had been floated by the prime minister's office earlier this year. It is likely that discussions on arranging the summit are taking place behind the scenes, he added.
"The problem for Abe is that he is on the outside looking in at all the diplomacy and summitry that has taken place in Northeast Asia in recent months. This has very much left Japan on the sidelines," Kingston told DW.
"That is largely because Abe has taken such a hardline stance against Pyongyang and been the strongest supporter of the 'maximum pressure' policy.
"It is a major about-face for a leader who was this time last year advocating regime change in the North to now be expressing his willingness to engage," he pointed out.
"And that is very sensible and talking is far better than the alternative," Kingston said. "Abe can go into any discussions with realistic expectations of what might be achieved, but he can also explore just what is possible."
The fear in Tokyo will be that any talks get bogged down in discussions over the fates of Japanese civilians abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s to train the regime's spies in Japanese language and culture.
The fundamental difference of opinion regarding the abductions is likely to render any proposals for talks meaningless, said Jun Okumura, a political analyst with the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. "Abe is not one to change his position on issues that matter to him politically or personally and denuclearization of the North and the fate of the abductees fall into those categories," he said.
"I would never say never about a meeting taking place, but I think it would be very difficult for Abe to speak with Kim and return to the Japanese public empty-handed on these two matters.
"And we have to remember that Kim does not actually need Japan very much any more as China and Russia have effectively eased the sanctions on his regime," Okumura added.
The relationship between Tokyo and Pyongyang, he said, is likely to become even more complicated if the North continues to demand that Japan provide an apology and compensation for its "past wrongdoings" during its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Pyongyang has not publically set a figure for compensation, but most expect it to be billions of dollars.
And North Korean state media have missed no opportunity in recent months to paint Abe and Japan in general in a poor light. Just hours before Abe's speech to the UN, the state-run Korea Central News Agency ran a story accusing Japan of "disturbing the peace" in the region with its own "wild militarist ambition."
"For any talks to happen, Abe needs to be able to show he's going to get something more concrete for his efforts," said Okumura. "And while I do not doubt that Abe is honest and sincere on these issues, I think they are long-shot aspirations."