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Shinzo Abe’s Diplomatic Isolation on North Korea

SNA (Beijing) — As anticipation builds up for a second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, now expected to take place in late February, another closely interested figure is sitting out cold on the sidelines—Shinzo Abe.

Since the beginning of the diplomatic thaw between Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul at the start of 2018, Tokyo has had little role to play on the main stage. This continuing marginalization is arguably detrimental to Japanese interests as the country will apparently have limited ability to shape the nature of the final agreements, should the Korean Peninsula peace process prove successful.

But Abe has no one to blame but himself. Having wagered on a North Korea policy which had relied solely upon confrontation, maximum pressure, and the escalation of threat perceptions for domestic political gain, Abe snubbed the early talks and allowed South Korea on its own to take the initiative.

For his part, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un appears quite content to observe the lack of unity amongst the US allies, and the diplomatic isolation of the hardline Japanese government in particular. Kim evidently hopes that Japan will eventually become willing to support sanctions relief and even offer some economic aid.

At the root of the failure of Abe’s diplomatic strategy was his attempt to opportunistically tie the country’s regional security needs with his desire for domestic political gain. For Abe, the North Korean threat was a useful weapon in his campaign for revising the country’s pacifist constitution and a remilitarization of Japan with the ultimate target of China in mind.

Abe and his government had sought to depict the situation with Pyongyang as an existential crisis, especially throughout 2017, using North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear weapons development as evidence that the regime would randomly, irrationally, and preemptively strike Japanese cities.

To further this end, Abe sought to closely align with President Trump with his “maximum pressure” strategy, and formulated his diplomacy accordingly. He appeared to believe that US power would be utilized so nakedly that North Korea would simply capitulate unilaterally to American terms. He thus completely opposed all direct dialogue.

The Abe government even resorted to various stunts to alarm and terrify the Japanese public. This included suspending service on the Tokyo Metro and other trains when a missile was launched and what appeared to be a cynical use of the national J-Alert system and other public defense drills.

This was followed up with a snap election in October 2017 in which the ruling party campaign was based almost entirely on fear-mongering about North Korea and declaring the Abe was the only man to heroically defend and protect the nation.

The atmosphere rapidly changed on New Years Day 2018, when Kim Jong-Un declared his desire to shift to a peace policy. The public then became aware of a peace movement that had been growing between the two Koreas behind the scenes.

Pro-peace South Korean President Moon Jae-In, dismayed by the potential threat of war against his country, was much more conciliatory than Abe. One of his first moves was to invite North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang.

It was at this point that Abe made his most serious miscalculation, believing that the Trump administration would continue to back his unbending policy of maximum pressure and no compromise, rather than accept the rapidly developing peace initiatives from Pyongyang and Seoul. Instead, the opposite occurred.

The situation worsened for Abe as the year went on. By mid-year Donald Trump himself was meeting face-to-face with Kim, while Tokyo remained on the sidelines as a prominent naysayer, betting against peace at every juncture.

North Korea, South Korea, China, and the United States were all participating in a diplomatic dance, exploring a re-shape of the region order, as the frowning Abe government sat in the spectator seats, waiting by the phone for the latest update from history’s actors.

As time went on, it was less a matter of Shinzo Abe “staying out” and more that he was being “kept out” in order to give peace talks a better chance to succeed. The prime minister on the whole had offered nothing but demands, hyperbole, and obstacles, but never any positive initiative that might push peace forward.

Ultimately, Abe’s “tough policy” on North Korea became a humiliation of sorts. He had intended to show his iron resolution in standing up to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, but what he actually achieved—if the peace process endures—is an unenviable choice between going cap in hand to Kim Jong-Un, asking for a useful role to play, or else remaining out in the cold, his face pressed up against the window.

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