Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during his annual policy speech on Monday, said he will endeavor to normalize relations with Pyongyang, stressing that he will “act with determination and not miss the opportunity” to resolve the North Korean nuclear and missile issue and the abduction of Japanese citizens “by meeting directly with Chairman Kim Jong Un.” He also said that he will “vigorously pursue a new era of neighboring diplomacy” that is not caught up in the idea of the past. However, Abe didn’t mention at all the bilateral relations with South Korea, which have plummeted to their worst point, during his address.
Abe’s attempt to seek improved ties with North Korea, while leaving out relations with Seoul in the speech, must have been politically motivated. Japan appears to be trying to enhance its presence in the ongoing nuclear talks while avoiding responsibility for disputes that were triggered by a Japanese military plane’s low-altitude flyby. This is clearly shown in the result of a poll that the domestic audience’s support for the Abe government grew when there were conflicts between Seoul and Tokyo. Also, the Japanese prime minister’s close aides have apparently told the press that Abe skipped mentioning South Korea because Seoul is not future-oriented.
Japan has made contact with North Korea in secret to mend ties, regardless of soured relations with South Korea. Though any progress is not be seen due to the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens, there’s still a possibility that Tokyo may try to find a diplomatic breakthrough as it did in 2002 and 2004 when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a surprise visit to Pyongyang. Compensation worth tens of billions of dollars, which will come with normalized ties with Japan, is also an inducement difficult to turn down from the North side.
Still, Prime Minister Abe’s willingness to improve relations with Pyongyang can provide a possible momentum for a positive change in the South Korea-Japan relationship. Japan is an important partner for South Korea in resolving North Korea’s nuclear issues. Moreover, the two countries are finding themselves in the same situation where they have to prevent the United States and North Korea from reaching a dangerous deal in which they agree on dismantling inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) but accepting the North as a nuclear state. Therefore, now is the time for Seoul and Tokyo to settle disputes and enhance cooperation. Just like it is difficult to achieve the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearization without Japan in the process, Japan will also not be able seek a “new era of neighboring diplomacy” without South Korea.