It’s wrong to sideline Japan in the North Korean talks

Why isn’t the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the centre of the discussions aimed at reaching a peaceful solution on the Korean peninsula?

The New York Times says that Mr Abe is being sidelined. It quotes Terry Ito, a commentator on Nippon Television, from Tokyo, that “the possibility of the US thinking about Japan is zero.”

Mr Abe will encourage President Trump to bring Japan to mind when they meet at the United Nations this week.

Skilled diplomat

Mr Abe is one of the most skilled diplomats in Asia and a person who has spent much of his political career considering the North Korean crisis. He can be expected to keep a cool head during complex discussions and to ensure the most important issues are addressed.

But I think there are two reasons why his presence might not be welcomed at the peace talks, particularly if the North Koreans themselves are taking part.

The first is that an issue which is crucially important to Mr Abe, the return of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, is not so important to other countries such as the United States and South Korea.

Prime Minister Abe believes the abduction issue must be resolved as part of the peace process. He has offered to meet the North Koreans directly to discuss it but they have refused.

Nevertheless, there are signs negotiations are taking place behind the scenes. The Washington Post reported a secret meeting between Japanese and North Korean officials in Vietnam in July.

Tough questions

The second reason Mr Abe might not be welcomed is that he has some very tough questions aimed at ensuring the North Koreans don’t renege on their promises, as they often do.

His goal remains exactly the same as he outlined in September 2017.

“We must make North Korea abandon all nuclear and ballistic missile use in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner. If North Korea does not accept that, then I am convinced there is no way forward other than to continue maximum pressure on it using every possible means,” Mr Abe said in his election victory speech.

Prime Minister Abe demands proof that North Korea is ready to change from a path of aggression to one of peace. He wants more than rhetoric and photo-opportunities.

Angry response

This stirs anger in North Korea. Its official propaganda outlet, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper recently wrote: “Japan has been left alone in the region, as a country of pigmy politicians ­engaged in an abnormal view on things and phenomena, anachronistic thought and stupid and unbecoming conduct.”

The North Koreans appear to be lashing out at the Japanese because they are trying to prevent them from making empty promises. That should be a signal to the other participants in the negotiations that Japan has a crucial role to play.

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