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N Korea at crossroads

Following US lead, Abe offers no-strings summit with Kim

Japanese leader drops demands on abduction issue after talks with Trump

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, may be able to capitalize on North Korea's diplomatic impasse with the U.S.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has signaled that he is ready to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions, a shift likely prompted by U.S. President Donald Trump's more conciliatory line on Pyongyang.

Abe and Trump discussed Monday the North's launch of short-range projectiles into the Sea of Japan last week. After the phone call, the prime minister told reporters that "I myself must meet face to face with Chairman Kim unconditionally."

Tokyo had previously insisted that Abe would meet with Kim only after progress is made on the abductions of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s. He said in January 2018 that "dialogue for the sake of dialogue is meaningless."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday that the prime minister's remarks the previous day laid out the administration's stance on dialogue "more clearly."

"We won't necessarily refuse to hold a Japan-North Korea summit just because there's no movement on the abduction issue," Foreign Minister Taro Kono said.

The Japanese government's current stance is more in line with that of Washington since its own pivot last year from confronting to engaging with the North.

Pyongyang was the main topic of conversation for Trump and Abe when they went golfing together outside Washington in April. Their call on Monday is believed to have covered a broad range of North Korea-related issues. Some observers suspect that Abe's about-face may reflect some overtures from Kim that he picked up from these discussions.

The North had envisioned securing concessions from the U.S. in denuclearization talks, and then -- after the lifting of sanctions -- approaching Japan to discuss economic support along with normalizing diplomatic relations. But this scenario has broken down amid an impasse with Washington, with the second Trump-Kim summit in February failing to yield results.

Amid this impasse, Japan has become a more valuable dialogue partner for North Korea, thanks to the warm relationship Abe has cultivated with Trump.

This would not be the first time Pyongyang has dealt with Tokyo after engagement with the U.S. failed. The 2002 trip to North Korea by then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took place at a low point in Washington-Pyongyang relations, with President George W. Bush naming the North as part of the "axis of evil" alongside Iraq and Iran.

North Korea, concerned about the possibility of American military intervention, used the abduction issue to get closer to Tokyo, finally acknowledging that the kidnappings took place after years of denial. In doing so, it hoped to indirectly engage with the U.S.

Abe's offer may be intended to capitalize on the similar predicament North Korea faces now. It serves as a signal to Pyongyang that it should offer some kind of proposal on the abduction issue. In reality, Abe is unlikely to agree to a summit if there is no prospect of progress on the matter.

In the past, North Korea has cooled on dialogue with Japan once relations with the U.S. improved even slightly. Given that history, the prospects for a summit remain uncertain. 

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