Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, unable to meet North Korea's leader himself, is heading to Washington to talk to President Donald Trump over Japan's security and other concerns at the unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit next week.
Abe will have less than two hours to make his points to the President at the White House on Thursday, before both go to Canada for a G-7 summit on Friday and Saturday, and the American president then flies to Singapore for his June 12 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Japan, which relied on the U.S. for its post-World War II diplomacy and security, has been absent in the recent burst of engagement with North Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have both met Kim twice, as Abe waits his turn to raise Japan's concerns directly.
"I want to make sure to be on the same page with President Trump ahead of the first ever U.S.-North Korea summit so we can push forward nuclear and missile issues, and most importantly the abduction problem, and make for a successful summit," Abe told reporters before leaving for the airport.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin congratulated Trump, saying the plan to meet Kim is "a courageous and mature decision."
Japan's Abe doesn't want President Trump to strike a compromise that would leave Japan exposed to shorter-range missiles that do not threaten the U.S. mainland or that relieves pressure on North Korea before it takes concrete steps toward complete denuclearization. He is expected to ask Trump once again to raise with Kim the fate of Japanese abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s.
"It wouldn't be my style to have to ask the U.S. for help on the abduction issue," said Hitoshi Tanaka, a former diplomat and head of a think tank, the Institute for International Strategy. "It's embarrassing that a state leader has to ask another leader in resolving the sovereignty of his people."
Abe said he will show at the G-7 summit his full backing for Trump on North Korea, but he will urge everyone to take leadership in promoting free and fair trade rather than escalating disputes.
Japan hopes to hold talks with North Korea after a successful Trump-Kim summit. Abe has said he is open to meeting with Kim, but only if it would lead to resolving the abduction issue. He said Japan would then normalize ties and provide economic aid as rewards for a North Korean commitment to both denuclearization and resolution of the abduction issue.
Japanese analysts agree that if Abe's turn to meet Kim comes, it would be at the very end of a long process as Trump and other regional leaders deal with North Korea's denuclearization.
"Japan eventually should develop its own diplomacy to deal with North Korea independently to resolve its problems, including the abductions," said Atsuhito Isozaki, a Keio University professor specializing in North Korea.
He said that economic aid or financial compensation for Japan's 35-year colonization of Korea could be attractive, but noted that North Korea now has other potential sources of assistance.
"Japan's economy does not stand out in northeast Asia as it did 16 years ago," he said, when Pyongyang and Tokyo last tried to negotiate a normalization of ties. Without Japan's help, North Korea has arranged a summit with the U.S. and possible economic cooperation from South Korea, he said this week at a briefing for media.
After a 2002 summit between then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea acknowledged abducting 13 Japanese and allowed five of them to visit Japan, though they then stayed, angering North Korea. Japan says at least 17 Japanese were abducted and possibly more.
Japanese officials are scrambling to get information on the Trump-Kim summit. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan will dispatch diplomats to Singapore to try to get the latest updates.
After his last meeting with Trump in April, Abe said the two leaders were in complete agreement on North Korea policy, namely to keep sanctions in place until Pyongyang takes concrete action toward verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
Concerns have since grown in Japan that Trump may be prioritizing holding a summit rather than the goal of full denuclearization. Abe, who has played tough on the North, also worries that a growing reconciliatory mood between the two Koreas may prompt leniency toward Pyongyang.
Trump's recent statement that he doesn't want to keep using the phrase "maximum pressure" against North Korea reinforced those fears
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