Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 05, 2018
Abe-Kim summit still a mirage?

North Korea is the only country in East Asia with which Japan does not have normal diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, both  nations do have mutual interests such as, Japan’s willingness to have a prominent role in the denuclearisation process, while North Korea’s desire for the economic aid and assistance from Japan. In the recent UN general assembly meeting held in September 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed a strong desire to hold direct talks with Korean President Kim Jong-un as a way to start afresh and build the relations of the two nations.  The idea of holding an Abe-Kim summit meeting was on the cards following the dramatic developments relating to the Korean peninsula after the Moon-Kim summit and the Trump-Kim summit in June 2018. After the Trump-Kim summit, Japan feared being isolated and felt the utmost need to conduct talks with North Korea.

Tokyo, being the closest ally of the US, has had little to do with the process of denuclearisation of Pyongyang. In the UN assembly, President Trump complimented Kim’s inclination to push the denuclearisation process forward. Japan is apprehensive of the fact of normalisation of relations between North Korea and the US, which will further sideline Tokyo from both Washington and Pyongyang. Trump is also keen on having a second meeting with Kim that will lay the basis for the ultimate way for the denuclearisation of Pyongyang.  Kim has previously met Trump, Moon and Chinese leader Xi Jinping but did not show any inclination to initiate a dialogue with PM Abe.

Knowing North Korea’s strength of nuclear missiles, international concerns have gone to an unprecedented level.  One of the major reasons of the increased tensions between Japan and North Korea is the nuclear threat Pyongyang poses to Tokyo and the Washington.


North Korea has threatened to target Japan several times and has even tested missiles that flew over the Sea of Japan. Therefore, Japan remains tense over North Korea’s use of ballistic missiles. Tokyo had refused to alter its stance towards Pyongyang, as it claimed that North Korea poses a ‘serious and imminent threat’ to its security, despite lowering of regional tensions followed by Trump-Kim summit in June this year. Tokyo has also been a part of the six-party talks since 2003, which is a series of negotiations for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Another major reason for the deterioration of relations between the two nations is the issue of the abduction of the Japanese citizens by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s to train the regime’s spies in the Japanese language and their culture. The abduction of Japanese citizens is an extremely sensitive issue in Japan, which needs to be resolved. When former Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea in 2002 to improve bilateral ties of the two nations some of the Japanese abductees were released while other were still in Pyongyang or were dead. Abe said, “in order to resolve the abduction issue, I am also ready to break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea, get off to a new start and meet face to face with Chairman Kim Jong un”. His foremost priority for a North Korea-Japan summit relates to the issue of abduction. Pyongyang wants Tokyo to apologize for its rule over the Korean peninsula from 1910-45 for making the decision of holding a summit more plausible.

Way forward 

North Korea’s nuclear capability has shown that Japan is becoming severe with the region’s nuclear threats, despite the dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, visited Pyongyang in October to hold talks to push the denuclearisation process forward and decide about holding the second summit between Trump and Kim. Japan will benefit from the denuclearisation of North Korea as it could contribute to normalisation of the relations between the two nations. President Moon told Abe after returning from a summit with President Kim in September 2018, that Kim is ready to engage in direct talks with Japan at an appropriate time and improve relations. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong met for the first time in three years in September 2018 with a view that Pyongyang shall take concrete steps towards denuclearisation and engage in dialogue. Japanese officials have made it clear that the economic assistance will come from Japan only after North Korea takes prompt action to dismantle its missile and nuclear programme and resolves the abduction issue with full consideration for Japanese citizens.

Abe is a kind of leader who would not change his stance on the issues that are of political importance to the country. An Abe-Kim summit could prove to be meaningless because Pyongyang wants an apology from Japan for the annexation of the Korean peninsula in pre-war years.


On the other hand, the summit is necessary for the return of peace in the Korean peninsula. There is also quite a lot of evidence that anti-American and anti-South Korean propaganda in North Korea has retreated in favour of portraying Japan as the new top aggressor.

An Abe-Kim summit is inevitable seeing the current scenario.  The only benefit that North Korea could have from the summit is to get a good amount of assistance from Japan. However, holding a summit perhaps may not be the immediate priority for North Korea, keeping in mind the hostilities between the two nations and Trump’s willingness to hold a second summit with Kim.

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Simran Walia

Simran Walia

Simran Walia is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi and is pursuing PhD in Japanese Studies under the Centre ...

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