Japan wants talks with North Korea, and its prime minister thinks Donald Trump can help.
On May 3, North Korea, a nuclear power, launched short-range missiles off its east coast, uncomfortably close to neighboring Japan. It is not the first time North Korea has shot ballistic missiles over, near or into Japanese territory in recent years.
After the most recent test, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called U.S. President Donald Trump – whom he had recently visited in Washington for trade talks – to discuss his intent to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for “unconditional” denuclearization talks.
Abe’s call to Trump comes several months after Abe apparently nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize in February for his efforts to forge a dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The recommendation was unexpected, given Trump’s aggressive “America first” foreign policy and disdain for multilateral international cooperation. After U.S. talks with North Korea collapsed shortly thereafter, a Nobel nod seemed wholly unwarranted.
While Prime Minister Abe has refused to clarify his reasoning for the nomination, a February 17 article in Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported that the U.S. asked Japan to put Trump’s name forward. Trump has confirmed that Abe nominated him in a “beautiful” five-page letter.
Other world leaders might have turned down that request. But Abe needs U.S. support to achieve many economic, political and foreign policy goals. From my perspective as a Kyoto-based scholar of Japanese politics, nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize is, for Abe, more sensible than it might seem.
Japan and North Korea
Trump’s unexpected decision last year to engage in discussions with Kim aligns much more closely with the diplomatic goals of China and South Korea – which say their goal is maintaining stability in the Asia region – than with Japan, which has taken a hardline stance against the North Korean regime.
Well before taking office as prime minister in 2012, Abe has demanded nothing less from North Korea than “denuclearization for peace.”
That was the U.S. position before Trump’s recent rapprochment, too. So Trump’s diplomatic approach to North Korea has basically left Japan out in the cold.
Beyond wanting to protect Japan from North Korean military aggression, Abe has another big demand for the Kim regime. He hopes to force North Korea to return the remaining 12 Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by North Korea between 1977 and 1983.
In 2002, North Korea officially admitted to abducting 13 Japanese citizens and, in an effort to restore good faith with Japan, agreed to return five of them temporarily – provided they were forced to return to North Korea.
However, Abe, who was then deputy prime minister, ensured that the detained Japanese citizens never went back, breaking his government’s agreement with North Korea. Ever since, North Korea has either denied that it still is detaining the remaining Japanese prisoners or claims that those in North Korea have since died.
Abe assumes they are alive and is eager to get them back – and show to his electorate he has the clout to do so.