Trump-Kim meeting may leave out Japan. Shinzo Abe is taking action

  • Tokyo wants its own bilateral summit with Pyongyang to ensure that any potential peace deal will serve Japan's security concerns, experts said.
  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is worried about being sidelined at a proposed meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
  • Warming up to Tokyo could help Kim disrupt American efforts to maximize pressure on his administration.
President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House on February 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Mario Tama | Getty Images
President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House on February 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, worried about being sidelined at a proposed meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, wants its own talks with the rogue state.

That could ultimately be beneficial for Pyongyang.

Tokyo has expressed a desire to meet with North Korea, the Asahi newspaper reported on Thursday. The conversation could take place in June, after May's anticipated sit-down between Kim and Trump.

Abe is likely proposing this summit because he doesn't want Trump and Kim to reach a deal that doesn't suit Japan's security concerns, according to experts.

Tokyo has made efforts to reach out to Pyongyang ever since it got wind that Trump accepted Kim's invitation to meet, said Lisa Collins, fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "They don't want to be left out of any sort of deal that would be made, and they're very anxious to get their foot in the door."

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Tokyo was considering seeking an Abe-Kim meeting to discuss North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

Tokyo has long demanded complete denuclearization from the pariah state, but that might not be on the table at the Trump-Kim summit.

If, for example, the White House agrees to let North Korea have low-level nuclear capability in exchange for a halt on intercontinental ballistic missile development, that would be acceptable to Washington but still leave Tokyo in the range of Pyongyang's weapons, said Stephen Nagy, a professor at Tokyo-based International Christian University and distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Abe also wants to ensure a safe return for the kidnapped Japanese citizens, who may still be alive, Nagy continued.

'Japan passing'

Japan's foreign minister said this week that Tokyo and Washington were "completely in sync" on North Korea. But many have said Abe feels slighted by the fact that Trump, who has flaunted his close relationship with the Japanese leader, didn't give him a heads-up on the Kim meeting.

Tokyo's fear of being left out of critical decisions that affect it is known as "Japan passing," said Sean King, senior vice president at New York-based consulting firm Park Strategies. The term comes from "Korea passing" as South Koreans faced the same worry on Trump and Kim, he added.

The Japanese leader will be heading stateside next month to discuss trade ties and North Korea strategy with Trump. Bilateral ties between the two countries remain robust, but Trump's recent actions may have dampened spirits.

"Abe's bromance with Trump has not been advantageous" following Washington's exit from the massive Pacific trade deal formerly known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an aggressive U.S. stance on Pyongyang and recent steel tariffs, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. "Abe has no choice but to put a brave face on things and get back into the game."

"Adding to Japan's current neurosis is the fact it's, perhaps, our only major ally not to be exempted from Trump's tariffs," which could be a tactic to force Abe into negotiating a U.S.-Japan bilateral free trade agreement, King said.

A win for Kim?

Pyongyang has been on a diplomatic offensive in recent months — it's agreed to a separate sit down with South Korean President Moon Jae-in before Trump. But many believe Kim is simply using dialogue to win economic concessions and bide time until his administration develops a nuclear weapons arsenal.

The reclusive regime is also examining the possibility of summits with Beijing and Moscow in addition to Tokyo, the Asahi newspaper reported.

This diplomatic outreach "fits within Kim's broader strategy," said Nagy, who explained that the dictator is looking to disrupt American efforts to maximize pressure on his administration.

Kim warming up to Seoul and Tokyo "will make it very difficult for Washington to get international support for a preemptive strike or other kind of military action," according to Nagy.

The U.S. pressure strategy is widely expected to be enhanced under new National Security Advisor John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, Trump's pick for secretary of state.