Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe will visit the United States on April 17–20 for a critical summit meeting with President Donald Trump. During the summit with Trump, Abe will primarily look to coordinate positions on North Korea, especially in light of last month’s sudden announcement that Trump would be interested in meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before the end of May. There has also been a flurry of other diplomatic moves on the Korean Peninsula, including Kim’s trip to Beijing to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the end of March, and a planned summit between Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-in at the end of this month. Abe has been scrambling diplomatic assets following the abrupt move by Trump to make sure that Japanese interests are not side-lined in the event that summit between Kim and Trump actually takes place.
Abe’s visit will also look to soothe simmering concerns on trade after Washington’s decision last month to introduce tariffs on steel and aluminum, while excluding Japan from a list of exempted countries that included most other U.S. allies and partners: Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, South Korea and the European Union.
The stakes are high now for Tokyo after the Trump administration has effectively poured additional uncertainty into a seemingly well-managed relationship. Since Trump’s election win in 2016, the management of the U.S.-Japan relationship has been a challenging endeavor for Abe. Trump’s statements during the 2016 presidential elections and his long-standing negative views of Japanese trade practices continue to cause anxiety and unease in Tokyo. Abe has taken it upon himself to avert negative consequences for Japan’s security alliance with Washington by pursuing a dual-track approach: getting close to the Trump administration while simultaneously cultivating separate trade and diplomatic options with like-minded partners such as the EU, Australia and India.
Alliance Management in the Trump Era
Until only a few weeks ago, it looked like Abe’s approach had paid off. However, the White House announcements on trade tariffs and North Korea served as a double shot across the bow that effectively blindsided Tokyo and has raised questions about Abe’s “special relationship” with Trump.
Trump’s opening of the door to potential summit with Kim next month effectively blindsided Tokyo. This decision especially stung because it was Abe who stood lockstep with Trump throughout the past year in supporting the “maximum pressure” strategy and cautioning against rewarding Pyongyang or loosening the sanctions regime for nothing in return. Last September, Abe penned an opinion piece in the New York Times—just following Trump’s blunt warning to North Korea at the United Nations General Assembly meeting—stressing the need for such a firm approach: “Considering (North Korea’s) history and its continuing missile launches and nuclear tests, more dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end. . . . Now is the time to exert the utmost pressure on the North.”
Abe felt that he was Trump’s key foreign advisor on the North Korean issue and for a while it appeared as if South Korea’s engagement-favored approach was seen as not plausible by Tokyo or Washington. The fast-moving dynamics on the Korean Peninsula have forced Abe to readjust and now it seems that Japan is also seeking a summit with North Korea following the potential Trump-Kim meeting. One of Japan’s biggest concerns—which Abe will look to address later this month at Mar-a-Lago—is that Trump may look to cut a deal with Kim that would focus primarily on rolling back Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile program. The concern here is that such a move—which would address some U.S. security interests over the risk of continental United States being vulnerable to North Korean nuclear weapons—may appeal to Trump’s “America First” agenda and desire to leave the summit with a “win.” For Japan, such a narrow approach is unacceptable as it would do nothing to address Japan’s vulnerability to medium and intermediate-range missiles that could be tipped with nuclear warheads.
But while Trump’s sudden push for high-level engagement with the North carries deep risks for Japan, there are also some opportunities. First, Washington’s openness to diplomacy has allowed Japan to renew engagement with the North on the long-standing issue of abductions. During the 1970s and 1980s, seventeen Japanese nationals were allegedly kidnapped off the west coast of Japan and other areas around the world by North Korean agents and brought to live in North Korea. In 2002, after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang, five Japanese citizens were returned. North Korea claimed that the remaining suspected abductees were dead, missing, or had never been taken to begin with. Koizumi visited North Korea once more in 2004, but Pyongyang insisted that the issue was closed. Abe, likewise, failed to break the stalemate during his first stint in office, from 2006 to 2007.
Abe has been successful thus far at raising this issue with Trump, who met with the families of the abductees during his trip last year to Japan and also raised the issue during his address at the United Nations General Assembly last year. During his summit with Trump later this month, Abe will surely look to make the best out of the opportunities from the potential U.S.-North Korea meeting and push Trump to raise the issue.