In the first half of spring 2019, in the face of a difficult environment for diplomacy with North Korea, Sino-US relations, and ROK-Japanese relations, Abe Shinzo continued to show initiative.
He was defying the odds in continuing his pursuit of Vladimir Putin and trying to join the fray in pursuit of a summit with Kim Jong-un, while preparing for a busy month in hosting first Donald Trump and then the G20. The new Reiwa era fueled recollections of the 30-year Heisei era and speculation about what might be different in the next era. In the forefront was the theme of US decline, China’s rise, and how Japan would position itself as the two big powers turned to open conflict, beginning with a trade war. The incoming Chinese ambassador Kong Xuanyou, who had specialized on Japan and spent 15 years working there, called for “grading up” ties at the working level with emphasis on arenas such as finances and a technological revolution (May 11, Yomiuri). He was supportive of multilateralism and open economies—drawing an obvious difference with the US—and of Japan-North Korean dialogue. Of Korean descent, he had served as a pipe to North Korea, according to the May 11 Sankei Shimbun, which relayed his message that with the start of the Reiwa era in Japan and the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the PRC in China, bilateral relations stand on a new starting line—Xi Jinping’s first visit to Japan nears.
In a May 4 editorial, Yomiuri bemoaned the contrast between the start of the Heisei era—when the democratic system was widely victorious—and the start of the Reiwa era—when China and Russia are increasing the force of authoritarianism and democracy is in retreat in Europe and the US. It sees big gains in the past 30 years in the spread of the global economy and the internet, but points to a backlash against globalization and the technological revolution, insisting that the will of the people should be better addressed by recognizing weaknesses that currently exist in democracy. No hint is given that Japan has similar problems with populism.
While Abe was resting his case for the July elections on his role as an international leader, with his personal bond with Trump in the forefront, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide was boosting his credentials with a much-publicized trip to Washington on May 9-12, showcasing Japan’s resolve against North Korea’s new missile launches and appealing for support on the abductee issue. On May 8 Sankei called this unusual trip by Suga, who rarely goes abroad and is not thought of as knowledgeable about foreign policy, a “tough diplomatic debut,” reminding people of his presence for the “post-Abe” era. On May 12, it further showcased him, focusing on the relationships Japan’s “No. 2” is now building for his candidacy as the successor.
Amid much talk of a “new cold war,” Asahi on April 7 stressed the differences in Sino-US ties and Soviet-US ties and drew the lesson that there is no alternative to dialogue, warning of the perils of returning to the mutual fear of that era. The progressive wing was growing nervous, but
on May 5 Sankei called for making the Indo-Pacific concept a central theme of the new Reiwa era. It noted critically that Japan was first to reopen economic cooperation with China in the aftermath of June 4, 1989 before sending the Emperor there in 1992, using him improperly. With its entry into the WTO, the 2001 shift to US unilateralism, and then the 2008 financial shock, China moved to forge a world order with itself at the center. Now with 5G at stake, Japan must line up with the US. As Xi Jinping is trying to drive a wedge between the US and Japan and get the US to reduce its pressure on China, media are reporting Nikai’s positive outlook on BRI, which sends the wrong message to the world. This is seen by the far right as potentially a second case of failure in Japan similar to what occurred after Tiananmen in 1989.
Sankei’s advice is to work with the US boosting maritime security, defending the Senkaku islands, and opposing China’s militarization of the South China Sea—the FOIP is assumed to be inherently hostile to BRI. In contrast, Asahi on May 5 cited Aso Taro as pushing for the Asian Development Bank to end financial help to China, despite the fact it has been considered a good borrower. A sense was building that Nikai and Aso are driving different leadership factions in a policy debate on dealing with China. In support of the Nikai stance, the BRI summit drew coverage of Xi striving to dispel concern and respect the laws of other countries, showing that the Japanese are becoming attuned to China’s newly reassuring manner. Yet, the Aso line represents the past mainstream and could well prevail if Japan is pressed to choose as Sino-US ties decline.
South Korea-Japan relations
On March 15 articles were grouped in Yomiuri from a security symposium, raising doubts about South Korea in trilateral missile defense by Tanaka Akihiko, and in anti-Japanese thinking and the need for stronger Japan-US alliance ties to overcome the loss of South Korea by other voices. Such concerns were in line with the pessimism prevailing in the media over the subsequent two months. On May 10 in Yomiuri news of the defense ministers of Japan and South Korea meeting in June in Singapore with the US represented also offered hope that that the radar tensions from late 2018 would be overcome at last and that the atmosphere would be prepared for an Abe-Moon summit later that month. Yet, the article found the gulf too wide for improved relations.
On May 12 in Tokyo Shimbun Park Cheol-hee wrote on Japanese diplomacy without South Korea, observing that during the May recess, when normally tens of Japanese Diet members visit Korea, only two showed up this year. Now Japan has set its sights on North Korea, seeing that other countries have failed in their diplomacy and that an isolated North is also eyeing Japan. If South Koreans had assumed that Japan has no role at this stage of peninsular affairs and Japan has appeared to aim just at the abductee issue, its interest goes further. Just after Abe met with Xi Jinping in October, when Xi was keen on escaping US containment, South Korea was readying the court decision on conscripted labor that left its Japan policy in shambles. Now Sino-Japanese business discussions have advanced as if South Korea has no presence. Hanoi also represented a US-Japan consensus with Seoul left aside. After North Korea launched missiles on May 4, the first US call was to Japan, not South Korea. With the FOIP, Tokyo—not Seoul—is counted on to help maintain the international order; in fact, the ROK is even behind Southeast Asian states. Park’s clear message is that Moon’s overoptimism on North Korea and unfriendly attitude toward Japan are backfiring—that instead of excluding Japan, it is South Korea being excluded.
On March 20, Yomiuri carried an exchange on the background of the worsening Japan-ROK ties with a Korean stressing the principle of prioritizing constitutional logic and a Japanese calling for resolving issues on the basis of international law. This split verdict persists, but matters were coming to a head in the first part of May. The Japanese were confident that Moon is being driven into a corner: Japan is strategically ignoring him, suggesting that Abe will have no reason to meet with him at the G20 since it would be useless and mentioning that Moon has brought relations lower than prior ROK presidents because he is a revolutionary (Yomiuri, May 2). Some movement could be seen by May 9, as defense ministers were expected to meet in three weeks in Singapore after tensions in the region had risen with Pyongyang’s missile firings. On May 9 Yomiuri reported the words of the new Korean ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo repeating that Moon does not want history issues to interfere with economic and security cooperation.
With Moon beginning his third year in office on May 10 assessments were consistently harsh. Sankei naturally led the way. On May 9 it editorialized that amidst a series of unjust court cases against Japanese companies, Seoul has broken the foundation of the postwar bilateral relationship now leading to cooling in investments. It advised the ROK to remove the “comfort women” statue in front of the Japanese embassy, which is the symbol of the anti-Japan movement. Its article the next day focused on the drop in Moon’s popularity over two years from 84 to 47 percent, the absence of any sign of improvement in the ROK economy and in ROK-Japan relations, the gap in positions on North Korea with the US after Moon had tried to serve as the go-between with Kim Jong-un, the failure to boost relations with China after THAAD had damaged them, and the growing sense of diplomatic isolation in the South Korean media. It asserted that even in South Korea there is alarm in business and political circles about worsening ROK-Japan relations.
The next day Sankei said Moon is losing his one claim to success, as US talks with North Korea collapse amid North Korean missile launches. Yomiuri on May 10 also saw Moon at the two-year mark at a dead-end with the worst relations with Japan ever, North Korean ties stagnant, and failing to deliver the promised economic successes. That day Asahi was forthright in blaming the chaebol model for the economic troubles as well as Moon’s reforms for a drop in GDP in the first quarter. It contrasted Moon’s attitude toward Japan in late 2017 when he thought of visiting it right after his visit to China but then worried about China’s reaction, and in much of 2018 when he wanted better relations after the court ruling on conscripted labor, when he responded emotionally. Yet, Asahi adds, the negativity has not permeated Korean society. Tourism is up by three times in a decade, and there is even a Japan wave in Korean tastes. Tokyo Shimbun also marked the Moon anniversary emphasizing his troubles, citing conservative Korean newspapers and hinting that Moon in his May 9 hope for a meeting with Abe at the G20 is vainly trying to deal with the fallout that has followed his position that the court ruling must be respected.
On May 15 jiji.com reported that the South Korean prime minister that day had acknowledged that his government was essentially limited in what it could do in response to court rulings ordering Japanese companies to pay reparations for forced labor, and it was difficult to talk of concrete measures, given the constitutional principle of a three-way division of authority. In January Moon Jae-in’s press conference had drawn criticism in Japan, for trying to shift the responsibility to the Japanese side to deal with this issue. Now the sense of helplessness was extended. On May 11 Sankei reported that Moon Jae-in is expected to meet with Abe on the sidelines of the G20 in June, and that he thinks it would be good to develop relations on the occasion of a new emperor ascending to his post. Contrary to Japanese thinking, Moon asserted that ROK-Japan relations are very important and should be forward-looking, although he is quoted as blaming Japan’s leadership for using historical issues for domestic politics, repeatedly interfering with the shift to future-oriented relations. Moon was unlikely to persuade many Japanese even if he does meet Abe.
On May 13 Mainichi reported on Diet member Maruyama Hotaka of Nihon Ishin no Kai, who, on May 11 in Kunashiri, asked a local man about the possibility of war erupting over the Northern Territories, implying that Japan might resort to that and triggering an exchange with the head of Japan’s delegation. After drinking at a local’s home, Maruyama spoke loudly and only a day later apologized for the trouble he aroused. Yet, when he returned to Nemuro at a press conference he railed against the taboo about speaking of the territorial question in the no-visa delegation he had joined. On May 14 in jiji.com the Russian media response to Maruyama’s reference to war as a means to resolve the territorial dispute was reported. TASS noted Suga’s regret at the remarks and insistence that diplomacy is the government’s way to resolve the issue. Regnum quoted the Japan specialist Anatolii Kosygin as dismissing this as drunk talk one hears from time to time, but he added that it is unprecedented for a Diet member to talk this way, and both governments should not ignore this. On May 14 Asahi Shimbun covered the same issue, noting Suzuki Muneo’s response that this talk is impermissible when the average age of former islanders is 84, and they dream of stepping foot on the islands. With powerful Russians reacting to the incident as a big deal, Japan’s foreign ministry must dispel any misunderstandings and the bog impact it may have on relations, he said.
On May 22 nippon.com warned that Maruyama’s remarks are influencing the Abe-Putin meeting in June, citing Sato Masaru, who explained that the visa-free exchanges were established as a way to overcome clashing viewpoints, but this incident wrecks that prospect and threatens the exchanges based on Japan not having to recognize Russian administration by using a visa. Maruyama has jeopardized it with his drunken rant, says Sato, warning this provocation could even lead Putin to cancel his meeting with Abe in June. So far, however, cooler heads have prevailed on both sides, as Suzuki made clear that this was a drunken outburst and not the position of the government.
On May 15 Bunshun took a closer look at this issue, discussing a commentary on Terebi Asahi a day prior, linking the territorial issue with Russia to constitutional revision and noting that if there is no possibility of going to war, diplomacy is more difficult. Maruyama’s party is making that connection. NHK News Web on May 14 interpreted Maruyama’s recent apology press briefing as saying that in his circle it has become commonplace to talk about seizing the Northern Territories by war. On May 14 Kyodo Tsushin reported on the response of a Russian parliamentarian, calling the comment despicable, adding if that is the attitude, there is no way to proceed. That day Suga dismissed what just one Diet member said as of no consequence. Having promised to stop drinking after getting into previous trouble, Maruyama had broken his promise.
Hokkaido Shimbun on May 15 warned of a threat to the visa-fee travel program from mention of war as a means to retrieve the islands, saying criticism is mounting from those involved in the exchanges, including the original island residents and their next generation, and he has been ejected from his party amid calls for his resignation from the Diet. The visa-free visits are meant to deepen mutual understanding and help to resolve the territorial question, it was said, as denunciations of Maruyama’s words continued, including charges that the Constitution gave up war as a means to resolve international disputes. The uproar reflected the frustration after hopes had been lifted and also the backlash against extreme voices that was beginning to be heard more.
In the June issue of Chuo Koron, Alexander Panov and Togo Kazuhiko continued their on-again, off-again exchange on resolving the dispute between Moscow and Tokyo. The first theme raised is signing a peace treaty that serves the interests of both countries. Togo sees the current status of relations as not in Japan’s national interest, not giving it the freedom it should have in its national strategy. Panov sees a huge change in bilateral relations following a peace treaty as important for resolving the biggest regional and global problems the two countries face. Russia sees itself as encircled in the West and seeks to increase its status with China while boosting its innovation economy through bilateral ties with Japan. From Japan’s perspective, Togo remarks, Russia has very bad relations with the US and in Europe, and while it is natural to focus on China and build ties to India, Russia should prioritize Japan. Panov responds that Russia can increase Japan’s status and influence, boost its autonomy while remaining a US ally, and strengthen its security to the north while greatly reducing threats from China and North Korea and becoming a leader among advanced states in ties to the promising Russian economy with its vast natural resources and market. As for Japan, Togo indicates that it should not damage ties to China completely because of US-China relations being on the skids, unlike the Cold War era polarization when it had no room to maneuver. Now, it must coexist with China and push back against Trump, who is not an aberration in the US. It is natural for Japan to seek more autonomy and to build trust with other countries, especially Russia in Northeast Asia. Panov responds that signing a peace treaty would lead to a new regional center forming between Moscow and Tokyo. Togo agrees that the opportunity exists, but seizing it depends on the resolution on the territorial issue.
On theme two—beginning talks on a peace treaty on the basis of the 1956 joint declaration—the differences were more apparent. Panov praises Abe’s shift in 2019, opening realistic talks at last. Togo differs in his extensive history of the dispute, but he asks Russia to see Abe’s move as the best opportunity with Tokyo almost completely accepting Moscow’s 1956 position. Yet, Panov views the shift as only opening the door to discussing complexities, disagreeing that demarcation is the predominant theme. Russia seeks from Japan legitimization of its control over the Kuriles—including all four islands, a softening in the antagonistic nature of the Japan-US alliance—including positions on missile defense even if they are declared to not be in response to Russia, and multi-dimensional development of bilateral relations—indicating an appeal for massive economic investment as well as total sanctions relief breaking the G7 unity. Otherwise, Panov warns of a backlash in both countries—meaning Russia—to an agreement. Togo sees Russia moving the goalposts and cannot agree with most of what Panov stipulates. A big concession has been made by Japan, Togo remarks, suggesting that there is no reciprocity in what Panov seeks.
On the third theme of the necessary conditions for a peace treaty, Panov begins by asserting that the 1904-5 war was not in the national interest of either country, bringing bad aftereffects to each. Togo offers a reminder that Japan and Russia became virtual allies soon afterwards. Panov continues, stressing the need to address history to build trust, while Togo sees Abe as veering from prior Japanese calls for redressing history. A huge turnabout is evident in Russian demands. Instead of Japan obsessing about historical justifications, Russia is making them a precondition.
Finally, the fourth theme centers on the contents of the peace treaty that only Abe and Putin are secretly negotiating, but others try to surmise. For Panov, this would include the end to all talk of Russia’s illegal occupation, recognizing Russia’s right to the islands, and abandoning claims to the two big islands altogether and language about the “return” of islands instead of the “transfer” of islands. Togo recognizes that Lavrov shifted Russia’s position in this manner, but he hopes that both sides will show flexibility. He adds that if Russia’s claims to Crimea are extrapolated, Japan’s claims to islands based on its people having lived there should matter. If Russia should agree to two islands going to Japan, Panov states, it would be reasonable to keep administrative control for 15-20 years while problems are resolved. In other words, Japan would continue to have to satisfy Russian demands before it could see the fruits of the deal it had signed. Panov insists that Russia cannot accept anything that could damage its security, and it was deceived by the US at the end of the Cold War and could be again, given that the US has not committed to not putting troops on the returned islands while missile defense programs are proceeding. Togo responds by saying Russia should understand that Japan is not going to discuss any distancing in the Japan-US alliance, while it can agree to demilitarization of the islands if it can also establish that in event of attack the US alliance would apply. Overall, Togo sees a deal within reach and fears the costs to both countries from failure, while Panov sees a process under way where not Russia but Japan must do much more to get a deal, which Russia seems not very eager to realize.
In this renewal of the exchange between two architects of the Irkutsk agreement in 2001, we see Togo, who is among the most eager advocates of a deal in Japan and the most positive boosters of the prospects for bilateral relations, struggling to find common ground with Panov, who calls for Japan to show autonomy from the US but gives no hint that Russia should do the same from China, who treats history as if it is only Japan that must reverse course, and who shows scant interest in discussing how both sides could compromise. The hardline posture of Russia is clear.
In the background was growing pessimism about the prospects for progress when Putin attends the G20 meetings in Osaka, as Japanese had predicted only months earlier. Japanese had tried to ease the way by dropping mention in the 2019 Diplomatic White Paper of language Russians find sensitive, but this was to no avail. The persistent message from Moscow was that any deal would take a long time, citing Peskov to that effect (Yomiuri evening, March 13), Putin’s harder line due to the Japan-US alliance was reported also in mid-March (Yomiuri evening, March 16), Japan registered its opposition to a missile drill on Kunashiri in early April (Yomiuri, April 5), Russian ambassador Galuzin gave an interview lowering expectations on April 19, pointing to Japan’s role in US-led sanctions against Russia and Russian public opinion regarding Japanese views not recognizing the results of WWII (Asahi, April 21), and Foreign Minister Kono’s May 10 visit to Moscow only confirmed Japanese impressions of Russia’s hard line, with a long list of demands and talk of opposition inside Russia mounting to further talks with Japan on transferring islands (Asahi, May 11).
What could be salvaged, as Abe awaited not only the G20 meetings but also elections to the Upper House in July? The theme shifted to accelerated talks on joint economic activity on the islands (after long failure on that subject) and Russian calls for visa-free travel between Sakhalin and Hokkaido (Yomiuri, May 11), indicating that the Russians wanted to drag out talks in order to get economic benefits. Some wondered what could be the connection between visa-free travel for Russian tourism and commerce and genuine joint economic activity, and why Japan was entertaining this prospect (Yomiuri, April 21), perhaps a face-saving way for Abe to pretend progress was still being made to Russia’s satisfaction, others might surmise. Resentment was building in Japan to dropping the language in the White Paper that the islands are “inherent” Japanese territory and the message that sends to international society regarding Japan’s other territorial disputes, as well as to Russian demands for concessions on sovereignty and security—two pillars of the state—in what was called by long hopeful Yomiuri an unexpectedly tough response (April 30). Sankei bluntly blamed the government for allowing Russia to get away with playing the energy card, as talks on the Yamal-2 LNG project turned to Mitsui and Mitsubishi taking a 30 percent stake, not for economic reasons but in the hope that this would make the territorial agreement possible and with the thought that competition with US shale gas would lower prices. The paper warned of risks: moving gas to Europe would pose less of an ice risk than moving across the Arctic Ocean to Asia, as Russia intends; while LNG is now excluded from US economic sanctions on Russia, that might not last; and Russian tax relief for the project could be reversed (April 17). Clearly, Russia was using talks to make economic gains.
Sato Masaru wrote two short columns with insights on Japan-Russia relations. On April 5 he noted the arrest of Victor Ishaev, perhaps the most powerful politician in the Russian Far East over the past decades, for corruption, suggesting a power struggle in Moscow, which may have ramifications for the territorial dispute; and on May 10 he took satisfaction that 17 years after his own arrest while being called a traitor for betraying the demand for the return of four islands in a batch, there was little resistance in the media and public opinion to Abe doing the same in order to pursue a deal based on the 1956 agreement (Tokyo Shimbun).
Asahi Shimbun on May 10 responded to the Diplomacy White Paper’s removal of the expression of “return the four islands of the Northern Territory,” noting repeated criticisms at LDP meetings as well as the government’s concern not to provoke Russia. This is a message of weakness when talks are not going forward, causing dissatisfaction in the LDP, even if the Foreign Ministry repeats that there has been no change in the government’s legal position. An intense look at the contradictions posed for school children reading textbooks by dropping language that the Northern Territories are the “inherent territory” of Japan appeared already in Tokyo Shimbun on March 27. Stressing the confusion being aroused by dropping this in some textbooks from the fall of 2018—well before doing so in press conferences and at the Diet—the paper contrasts this weak position to Abe’s unquestioned “patriotism” in 2014.
Abe’s April 26 summit with Trump, as reported by President Online on May 9, dealt with sensitive issues: US calls for making agriculture and autos centerpieces in bilateral trade talks, and responses to North Korea a day after the Putin-Kim summit, where Kim sought support, as he has with Xi Jinping, for sanctions relief. With translators, the summit lasted all of 45 minutes. On May 4 North Korea proceeded to fire missiles into the Sea of Japan for the first time since November 2017. The article reported that Asahi Shimbun and others are critical of how far Abe goes in “hugging diplomacy” to cater to Trump, such as in saying that only Trump can bring about success in talks for complete denuclearization. Abe is further said to be hinting at resolving the impasse through his own talks with Kim Jong-un. Abe needs to distance himself from Trump if he wants to have a chance with Kim, readers are told. Asahi had editorialized on April 24 that the Japan-US summit “honeymoon” lacked substance, finding no strong message in Abe’s approach and taking Trump’s demand for an agreement on trade by the end of May when he visits Japan as unexpected. It called on Abe to stick to free trade as the principle, using TPP as the background framework. It also asked if healthy alliance relations can be built on buying weapons to please the US and what point a summit serves if opinions cannot be shared on demands for big increases in host nation support. The article contrasts the Yomiuri editorial on April 28 to Asahi’s views. Strong bilateral relations had been sustained, striving for stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. The leaders have accelerated the talks for a new trade agreement. With the US in tense talks over trade frictions with China and Europe, Abe and Trump made clear that they would not let differences over trade come into the open. Sankei was less positive, noting Trump’s push for a quick deal to help in his 2020 election and Japan’s wish for reaching agreement only after its summer elections as well as the divide over what to include in a trade deal. Both leaders are accused of prioritizing their personal ambitions over national interests. Concern is raised about Abe’s shift in early May to unconditional talks with Kim, driven perhaps by the fact that only Japan—among countries of the six-party process—has had no dialogue with him.
On May6 in Yomiuri Trump was seen as okay with North Korea’s new missile launches because they were not ICBMs. On May 8 it editorialized that the North would escalate its provocations in stages to get a third Trump-Kim summit with a more favorable outcome. Seoul and Washington were invested in talks and relaxing their guard, and Tokyo had to push for the alliance to remain firm. As for Abe dropping preconditions for talks with Kim, this was excused as due to the need to address the abductions issue and the fact that only Japan had failed to get a summit dialogue going. The next day, however, Tokyo Shimbun was tougher on Abe for contradicting his oft-stated posture in favor of pressure. It reminded Abe that he has insisted on all three issues being resolved together and that Pyongyang has preconditions for talks, even if he no longer has them, i.e., recompense for the colonial rule and an end to Japan’s distinct sanctions. Sankei that day also reminded readers that Abe had opposed dialogue for the sake of dialogue, but it suggested that Abe’s mind had changed because Kim in Hanoi had recognized the existence of the abductee issue and had said that he is ready to meet with Abe, contrasting that news with Yomiuri’s reasoning that Abe had seen lower-level talks reach an impasse and wanted to break the logjam, and noting that Mainichi’s objection to Abe’s switch and view that Kim would not agree to talks anyway. Sankei went on to declare that Abe’s new wording is intended for a domestic audience to escape criticism for not being part of the summitry. In any case, none of the summits is successful, it added. Asahi on May 8 pointed to the harsh North Korean replies to Abe’s dropping of conditions for talks on May 6 after talking by phone with Trump. The key takeaway from that conversation for Sankei on May 8 was continuation of pressure on the North.
>On May 8 President Online reported on the Kim-Putin summit, stressing Kim’s objective in containing the US push to maintain sanctions, which are threatening the continuation of his system. The article sees North Korea’s economy as teetering on the brink. Putin concluded the summit with calls for guaranteeing the North’s security, expressing support for the North. The Hanoi summit failed when Trump demanded CVID, readers are told, but Putin wants to increase Russian influence on peninsular questions and make its presence felt in international society, and it has been seeking the summit even as Kim was ignoring Putin and emphasizing direct talks with the US.However, when the Hanoi summit failed, Kim turned to Russia, and Putin saw a good chance to boost Russia’s footing on the peninsula. The thinking of the two totally coincided, readers are told, even as Putin warned that the US and South Korea alone did not suffice for a security guarantee; a six-party process is needed. Putin is working with China to push the US to ease sanctions early, starting with such a security guarantee. This corresponds to Kim’s thinking. Putin views North Korea as an important diplomatic card versus the West and joining with China. In their views on denuclearization, Putin and Trump are sharply divided, the article adds, arguing that Abe and Moon stand with Trump on no sanctions relief until complete denuclearization occurs, and Russia and China stand with Kim on step-by-step relief as a process unfolds. Yet, after Trump failed in Hanoi, Abe decided it is now his turn, and he should seek direct talks. He also sought to keep Japan, the US, and the ROK on the same page, made difficult by Moon and Trump’s lack of commitment. Sankei on April 26 asserted that Kim’s challenge in getting a third summit with Trump is not to lean on China and Russia but to get on with complete denuclearization, which others facilitate by strict sanctions enforcement. Yet, Japan’s decision to remove passages from its diplomatic white paper on pressuring the North and resolving the abductee issue early raises concerns, Sankei insists, seeing Abe’s aim for a successful summit as hopeless. On April 26 Asahi took a different tack. It saw Japan’s isolation in diplomacy with the North, in light of US activism, as a mistake, Russia as eager for the North’s denuclearization, and Japan as needing to pursue direct dialogue with the June G20 in Osaka an opportunity to play an active role in wide-ranging diplomacy on the North Korean question. The question now remains: Which way will Abe lean as he senses expectations for him rising?
On May 4 Yomiuri claimed to know what had transpired at the Putin-Kim summit, asserting that Kim made seven requests: 1) support for stage-by-stage denuclearization; 2) a guarantee for the security of the system; 3) backing for removal of sanctions; 4) food assistance; 5) export to the North of refined petroleum products; and 6) extension of visas for North Korean laborers working in Russia; and 7) import of minerals and marine products from the North. Putin, it said, avoided responding on sanctions relief, while supporting the stage-by-stage approach. He agreed to petroleum exports within the limits set by the Security Council. Also in light of Russia’s need for the labor, Putin was forward-looking on the issue of visa extensions, but the article concludes that no clear sympathy was offered to Kim, and the summit ended in disagreement, it is asserted. Tokyo Shimbun editorialized on April 26 that Kim chose Russia since China is wary of offering economic assistance in the midst of trade tensions with the US, while Sankei’s editorial that day indicated that Putin with his support for stage-by-stage denuclearization gave backing to the North in its talks with the US and will expand trade and humanitarian assistance. He agreed to the need for a multilateral guarantee for the system. Moreover, Russia’s aim is to impair the talks with the US. For this paper, what is essential is not to relax the sanctions, but the Diplomatic White Paper just issued by Japan raises concern about Japan’s own posture in that regard. Yet, Yomiuri disagreed, stating on May 4 that Putin had demanded complete denuclearization, and the summit had ended in Kim’s dissatisfaction.
On May 11 newspapers responded to the second set of North Korean missile launches in a week, taking them seriously as a break from the diplomatic path of the past 16 months and an upgrade in the North’s missile threat to Japan. Yomiuri pointedly asked what Trump would do, affirming that Kim had to change policy for talks to advance and that complete denuclearization is a precondition for sanctions relief. Sankei on May 10 had been blunter in warning that to the extent the US and ROK were not firm in their behavior, the North would possibly gradually up its military provocations. It saw the North as striving for an edge in talks, hinting at the limits of the course of dialogue that had been chosen. Sankei the next day editorialized that the Security Council should meet and impose stricter sanctions. If violations are overlooked, the Security Council is diminished, and the US response after the missiles on May 4 fell short, although this time it sent the right message. Despite Abe’s softening of conditions to talk to Kim, Japan must keep the sanctions until the abductions issue is resolved, the paper urged.
On May 11 after North Korea had fired short-range missiles, Tokyo Shimbun reported on the responses in Russia and China. Russia showed some understanding of the launches, blaming the US for its pressure driving the North to this action, while China repeated the need for dialogue to resolve the situation. Asahi editorialized on May 11 that for over a year North Korea had shown change, but now it is only isolating itself again, dissatisfied with the results of the Hanoi summit. The blame is all Pyongyang’s, just as it faces food shortages, to which international society should respond if denuclearization is pursued. A second editorial that day called Abe’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-un, dropping the condition that there needed to be progress on the abductee issue, a big shift without any explanation or strategy offered. Adding that dialogue for the sake of dialogue is meaningless, Asahi noted the recent removal in the 2019 Diplomatic White Paper of the phrase “raise pressure to the maximum” for North Korea, parallel to the removal of “return the Northern Territories to Japan” for Russia, with thinking that rivals should not be provoked. Yet, the editorial adds, Abe had relied too much on personal relations with Putin, implying that trying the same approach to Kim Jong-un would be fruitless as well. On that day, Asahi also noted Japan’s shift on North Korean human rights at a Geneva meeting. Concerns are being raised about putting bilateral negotiations ahead of human rights violations.
On April 26 Yomiuri considered how China and Russia are dealing with North Korea, noting Putin’s visit to the BRI forum just after his hosting of Kim and pointing to coordination, as China hesitates in order not to rile the US amid trade talks, while it welcomes Russia playing a more active role with the North.