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North Korea Crisis

Abe weighs pros and cons of meeting North Korean leader

Japan sees its priorities falling by the wayside in allies' talks with Kim Jong Un

Japanese Prime Minister, left, fears that the world's shift to dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may hurt the chances of solving the abduction issue. (Kyodo, KCNA)

TOKYO -- Aides to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have begun floating the idea of a one-on-one meeting between Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

As other nations shift course toward dialogue with the rogue state, Japan fears being left behind.

While such a diplomatic gambit could help halt the slide in Abe's public support triggered by the renewed school scandal, a sudden shift in the nation's North Korea policy -- after insisting on maintaining "maximum pressure" -- holds the risk of further angering voters.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Thursday did not dismiss the possibility of a summit with Kim. Japan and North Korea are "in contact through a variety of means, including embassy channels in Beijing," Suga said at a press conference.

Abe, too, did not rule out a three-way summit with the U.S. and North Korea when speaking at an upper house budget committee meeting Monday. The prime minister sees such a meeting as a possible means of achieving Tokyo's diplomatic aims, including resolving the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea in the 1970s and '80s.

Both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump are firming up plans for summits with Kim. Inter-Korean talks are set to take place in late April, while the U.S.-North Korea meeting is expected by May.

Japan is racing to make sure that these talks cover its priorities, including a resolution to the abduction issue and the disposal of Pyongyang's short- and medium-range missiles capable of reaching Japan. In a March 16 phone call, Abe urged Moon to bring up the abductions at his summit with Kim. The prime minister plans to make a similar plea to Trump during a visit to the U.S. in April.

But neither Seoul nor Washington is certain to cooperate. Moon has repeatedly derided a 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea designed to put to rest the issue of wartime "comfort women." Against that backdrop, "frankly, we do not want to ask them for a favor," said a Japanese foreign ministry official. Trump could demand action on the U.S.-Japan trade imbalance in exchange for bringing up the abductions.

With such powers as China and Russia drawing closer to North Korea as well, many argue that Japan's only defense against being left out in the cold is to hold its own summit with the country.

Such a meeting could hand Abe a much-needed win at home. His cabinet's approval rating plunged 14 percentage points to just 42% in a new Nikkei poll, shaken by a scandal involving the steeply discounted sale of public land to a nationalist school operator. Unless Abe can regain his political footing, he will face a tough fight for another term as his party's leader this September.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2002. (Pool photo)

Abe is turning to diplomacy, his forte, to score political points. He plans to meet with Trump in April and visit Russia in May. Making progress on the abduction issue, a matter near and dear to the Japanese public, could help the prime minister regain public esteem. After then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi extracted an apology from North Korea for its role in the abductions during a 2002 visit to Pyongyang, his approval rating soared.

Yet a summit with Kim would also mark a radical departure from Japan's current North Korea policy and so presents risks of its own. If Kim's government denies having abducted Japanese nationals or simply ignores the topic, backlash from abductees' families and the public could put the Abe government in even hotter water, drawing calls for senior officials to resign.

Nor is it clear that Pyongyang would be open to talks. North Korea's ultimate goal is thought to be for the U.S. to guarantee the Kim government's survival. With a Kim-Trump summit now on the agenda, Pyongyang has little reason to work for improved ties with Tokyo. The North's state-run Korean Central News Agency has suggested that Japan's fear of international isolation is behind its change of tack. Such suspicions will make it difficult for Tokyo to gain the upper hand in any talks.

Pulling plans for a summit together could also prove difficult in practical terms. Japanese connections in the North have withered over time. Beijing embassy channels are mostly used by Japan to lodge complaints with the North and are unsuitable for covertly passing messages between the countries' leaders. A channel through Japan's foreign ministry has remained dormant since February 2016, when Pyongyang halted an investigation into the abduction issue.

Sanctions on the North have also made it difficult for the leaders of Chongryon -- a pro-Pyongyang association of Korean residents of Japan -- to travel overseas and connect top officials in the two countries, according to a source involved in Japanese-North Korean relations.

Pyongyang "should eventually reach out to Japan in search of economic assistance," a foreign ministry source said. But this, too, holds risks. Unless Abe has a strong strategy going into any summit with Kim, the meeting could simply result in North Korea asking for money.

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