Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe is considering a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in an apparent change of strategy in dealing with Pyongyang.
Reports of a potential dialogue mark the latest in a series of fast-paced diplomatic developments, with North Korea and the United States recently announcing plans to hold a summit.
Mr Abe reportedly decided to consider the option of dialogue with Pyongyang after he was briefed by Suh Hoon, the South Korean envoy who helped negotiate the US-North Korea meeting, according to Kyodo News.
An Abe-Kim meeting would contrast starkly with the Japanese government’s longstanding policy towards Pyongyang, which has firmly centred on “maximum pressure” and dismissed the idea of “talks for the sake of talks”.
However, such a summit would ease any concerns Japan might currently have that it is being left behind in dealing with North Korea, if talks between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington continue without Tokyo’s involvement.
The last high-level meeting between the two nations took place 14 years ago, when Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi met Mr Kim’s father Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang.
Mr Abe also reportedly anticipates the recent easing of tensions as a fresh opportunity to tackle not only denuclearisation but also North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals dating back to the 1970s.
The issue has become a cornerstone of Mr Abe’s political tenure, with the PM rising to power on the back of calls for a tough line on North Korea and its Japanese abductions.
“If we’re to resolve the abduction issue, direct dialogue with the top – Mr Kim Jong-un – is essential,” a government source from Mr Abe’s office told Kyodo News.
Mr Abe has already announced plans to visit the US early next month in order to coordinate North Korean policies with Mr Trump ahead of a historic first meeting between a sitting US president and North Korean leader.
“In the event that we do hold (a summit with North Korea), we will need to watch the actions of both the United States and South Korea, and look for an effective time,” a Japanese government source added to Kyodo News.
Japan’s apparent change in approach to Pyongyang reflected Mr Abe’s growing concerns that it has been sidelined by Washington and Seoul in discussions with North Korea, according to Professor Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
“Abe was blindsided by Trump’s sudden swerve towards talks,” he told the Telegraph. “Abe had been adamant that it is pointless to talk for the sake of talking.
“So yet again Abe had the rug pulled out from beneath by the erratic Trump and is now scrambling to catch up with this dramatic turn of events and make Japan relevant to the process.
“He has been seriously upstaged by Moon and is miffed that South Korea has taken lead. So this is about face saving and trying to make sure Japan has a voice in the talks because great concern is that Trump will cut a deal that doesn’t address Japan’s concerns.”