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N Korea at crossroads

Japan prepares for approach from North Korea after failed summit

Tokyo officials draw parallels to tensions under Bush and Kim Jong Il

Junichiro Koizumi, then prime minister of Japan, shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il after arriving in Pyongyang in 2002. Shinzo Abe, then a top aide to Koizumi, stands to the immediate right of the prime minister.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Following an unfruitful summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Japanese government officials are starting to anticipate that the rogue state could seek talks with Tokyo in hopes of indirectly mending the fence with the U.S.

Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Friday was briefed on the Trump-Kim meeting over the phone by U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo. The two discussed strategies toward resolving the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea, as well as Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Up to this point, Tokyo has sought Trump's help in resolving the kidnappings of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang in the 1970s and '80s. After talking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump brought up the abductions with Kim during this week's summit, after also doing so at last June's meeting with the North Korean leader in Singapore.

But the latest summit in Hanoi ended abruptly without any agreement. Although the outcome would appear to be unfavorable for Japan at first glance, senior government officials here are not overly pessimistic.

Trump "conveyed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sentiments. That is significant," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday. Suga also touched on a possible meeting between Abe and Kim. "I intend to realize the prime minister's determination to fully confront Chairman Kim and resolve differences," Suga said.

"We should present a clear path toward a bilateral summit" between Abe and Kim, Eriko Yamatani, a former minister in charge of the abduction issue, said during a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

As the gulf between Washington and Pyongyang widens, the Japanese political establishment thinks North Korea will inch closer to Tokyo as it did nearly two decades ago under similar circumstances.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, then-U. S. President George W. Bush famously labeled North Korea, Iran and Iraq the "axis of evil" in 2002. The U.S. proceeded to invade Iraq, and many believed North Korea would be next.

This, combined with an economic crisis at home, forced Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il to reach out to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, hoping to take advantage of the latter's rapport with Bush. Those overtures eventually led to Koizumi's landmark visit to North Korea in the fall of 2002 and the repatriation of five abductees.

The cozy relationship between Abe and Trump mirrors that of Koizumi and Bush. If U.S.-North Korean tensions flare up, the rogue state could once again attempt to bring Japan into the fold as part of its strategic approach toward Washington.auto

"I know that I need to face Chairman Kim myself next," Abe said Thursday, reiterating his willingness to hold a summit with Kim. The prime minister has also stated that channels of communication are always open, hinting that Japanese officials are seeking potential contact with North Korean counterparts behind the scenes.

But negotiating with the North carries many potential pitfalls. North Korea's eyes are squarely on the U.S., since keeping Kim in power is foremost on its list of priorities. Any discussions with Japan would only be an avenue for repairing ties with America.

"Japan need to make progress with North Korea while keeping a close eye on U.S.-North Korean negotiations," said a source with Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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