Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced his government’s intention to hold face-to-face meetings with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un. Speaking to the press on Monday he stated, “In the end, I must hold dialogue with Kim and resolve the issues of nuclear (weapons), missiles and, most importantly, North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals, in order to build a new bilateral relationship.”
The speech noticeably omitted references to South Korea, a reflection, according to the Star Tribune, of Tokyo’s recent efforts to distance itself from the country over the recent discussions over historical controversies between the two nations. Japan is also repeatedly not participating in multi-national defence exercises held in South Korea. The country has a complicated colonial past in the Korean peninsula, an issue that has caused much political strife between them and both Koreas.
This conciliatory message is a sharp turn in policy on North Korea previously expressed by Abe’s administration. Last year, in Abe’s same speech to Parliament he described relations with Pyongyang in much stricter language, vowing to “compel North Korea to change its policies” and calling the country’s nuclear program a “unprecedentedly grave and urgent threat.”
For its part, Pyongyang has also routinely decried actions of the Japanese state. Just last month the state-sponsored news agency within the country, KCNA, called the country a “heinous criminal state against humanity.” They have yet to issue a statement regarding Japan’s new plans to foster relations.
The leader of Japan pledged to also push Japan-China to a “new stage,” a move seen to reinvigorate the world’s third largest economy. Bilateral ties between the two nations were fractured in 2012 after Tokyo chose to “nationalize” disputed lands in the East China Sea but Abe has claimed relations have been repaired after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last year. Japan has the world’s third largest economy but has struggled due to an aging population and crumbling infrastructure. Various business interests have been pushing to improve relations with China for many years. China is the country’s largest trading partner, as well as the largest source of tourism for the island nation and restoring relations could potentially boost the country’s economy significantly.
While this new policy shift towards North Korea is a far departure from previous Japanese foreign policy regarding the country, it does signal a hopeful sign for those pushing for peaceful engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The DPRK has gradually been engaging more with the international community, although, as many critics of Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un have pointed out, North Korea could simply use these talks to gain political capital instead of moving towards denuclearization or improving the human rights record if handled poorly.
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