Japan's Abe, used to being Trump's buddy, finds himself out of step on North Korea

Japan's Abe, used to being Trump's buddy, finds himself out of step on North Korea

TOKYO — Japan’s hard line prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had grown accustomed to being President Trump’s favorite foreign leader. But now he is suddenly scrambling to remain relevant as the U.S. president embarks on a daring diplomatic gambit with North Korea. 

When North Korea embarked on a charm offensive linked to the Winter Olympics a month ago, Japan’s prime minister warned anyone who’d listen not to fall for Kim Jong Un’s “smile diplomacy” and to keep up the “maximum pressure” campaign.

Now, with both the South Korean and American leaders planning summits with Kim, Abe is trying to minimize the appearances of differences with Trump.

“I don’t believe North Korea is using this opportunity simply to buy more time,” the Japanese prime minister said after meeting Tuesday with Suh Hoon, the South Korean intelligence chief who met with both Kim and Trump last week. 

“North Korea now has to face important negotiations, including the inter-Korean summit and a summit with the United States,” Abe told Suh, according to a readout from South Korea’s presidential Blue House.

The prime minister did not supply the same readout. He said simply that his basic position remained the same: that North Korea must take steps to denuclearize, and that the outstanding issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s must be dealt with at the same time.

“It is extremely important that North Korea take concrete steps to turn its words into actions,” Abe told reporters after the meeting. 

Trump has said that he believes North Korea is “sincere” in its offer to hold talks on its nuclear program, although the White House has said it wants a concrete commitment to denuclearization before any summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

The summit is tentatively scheduled for May, following an inter-Korean summit at the end of April.

[Trump accepts invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un]

Abe and Trump had been walking in lock-step when it came to North Korea, both promoting a strategy of putting “maximum pressure” through sanctions on the Kim regime to force it to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Both were suspicious of efforts led by Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s progressive president, to use diplomatic engagement to achieve the same outcome.

The split was starkly illustrated at the opening of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, just over a month ago. Abe and Vice President Pence remained seated while the unified Korean team entered the stadium, and both resolutely avoided interacting with Kim’s sister. 

That turned out to be an error of judgment on Abe’s part, said Gerald L. Curtis, the renowned Japan scholar.

The opening ceremony set off a cascade of diplomacy, beginning with a summit invitation from Kim to Moon and leading to a summit invitation from Kim to Trump. Trump hastily accepted that invitation last Thursday — without giving Abe any advance warning that he would do so.

“Abe made a major mistake at the PyeongChang Olympics by putting on that mad, upset angry face,” Curtis said. “Now Japan is not a major player. The Chinese and the South Koreans and the Americans are all pushing this [pro-talks] line, and Abe is scrambling to get on board.”

Part of the reason Abe failed to see which way the winds were turning was because he was blinded by his distrust of Moon and by a general Japanese government antipathy for South Korea. 

Historical disputes, particularly over Japan’s use of Korean women as sex slaves during World War II, continue to cast a dark cloud the countries’ relations. Abe’s government is incensed that Moon’s administration has reopened discussion about a 2015 deal that was supposed to be the “final and irreversible” statement on the matter. 

That anger was compounded at a state dinner for Trump in November, when Moon served shrimp from islets that are the subject of a festering territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan.

[In Japan, a scandal over a school threatens to entangle Abe]

The divergence in approach between Japan and the United States could hardly come at a worse time for Abe. 

Trump decided to accept Kim’s invitation on the same day that he imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from countries including Japan, despite Tokyo’s please to recognize their alliance relationship.

It also comes amid damning new revelations that have damaged Abe’s domestic standing and reignited doubts about his political future.

The Finance Ministry this week admitted to removing the name of Abe’s wife from documents related to a heavily-discounted land deal for a controversial nationalist school in Osaka. Abe had strongly denied any cronyism by him or his wife, but the ministry’s admission that it had doctored the paperwork has raised new doubts about the process.

Abe’s support ratings have taken a dive as a result. The latest survey from the Yomiuri Shimbun, a paper that is generally supportive of Abe, found that his approval rating had slumped six points to 48 percent, the first time it had fallen below 50 percent since the parliamentary elections in October. 

Read more:

Kim Jong Un wants to be seen as Donald Trump’s equal. A meeting would do that.

Mattis says questions on meeting between U.S., North Korea should be handled by State

The White House sounds as if it might have cold feet about Trump meeting Kim Jong Un

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