Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong-un need each other in a way that few national leaders have needed each other since the early days of World War II — and they appear likely to become summit partners even if it means alienating their traditional friends and allies.
What N. Korea’s young hereditary ruler needs more than anything is a Grade A economic power to help rebuild and prime his nation’s broken and rusty economic pump. That would help it break the ice with other nations that have been reluctant to violate the US-led economic blockade.
What Japan’s new headline-chasing prime minister needs is a geopolitical coup that will revive his nation’s flagging self-confidence by putting it out in front of regional developments instead of perpetually being victimized by them.
During the past decade Tokyo and Pyongyang have kept each other at a distance in deference to the wishes of their close allies and friends. Any move by Japan to take the initiative to boost ties with N. Korea would have been tantamount to thumbing its nose at Washington and Seoul and their concerted efforts at trying to bring Pyongyang to heel. Any effort by Pyongyang to cozy up to Tokyo would have offended its old generals with memories of Japan’s brutal colonial rule, and Beijing, its sole military ally for the past sixty years.
Now both Japan and N. Korea find themselves increasingly at odds with their traditional allies.
Washington has made it clear that it won’t back Tokyo in the dispute with Beijing over the Senkakus (Diaoyudao). No US aircraft carriers and missile cruisers will be sent to keep Chinese submarines, ships and fighters from slowly tightening their picket around the Senkakus. Washington is committed on paper to responding militarily against any Chinese attack on Japanese assets, but Beijing doesn’t need to fire a single shot. It will simply continue using its inexorably growing numerical superiority in ships, jets and manpower to put the Senkakus gradually out of reach of Japanese defensive capability.
S. Korea is challenging Japan in its most important export segments — everything from consumer electronics to chips to sophisticated oil tankers and state-of-the-art cars. It has also begun eclipsing Japan both culturally and politically around the world. Abe’s aggressive stance on comfort women, visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and the rocky little outcroppings known as Dokdo (Takeshima) has convinced many S. Koreans that he wants to lead Japan to embrace its imperialist past.
Abe knows that he has to change its current dynamics with China and S. Korea if Japan is to keep from becoming East Asia’s punching bag. In practical terms Abe sees only two initiatives within his power that can change the current oppressive equation. One is to send the yen plunging to make Japanese exports more competitive with those of S. Korean and China regardless of the impoverishing effect on the less affluent half of the nation’s population. The other is to have Japan fill the vacuum left by Beijing and Seoul in response to Kim’s recent provocations.
Abe has already done the former, sending the yen on its way to losing nearly half of its value between last February and next, sending exports and stocks surging while increasing the cost of fuel, food and household goods. Now he’s about to pull off what may be the most daring move of his political career: position Japan as N. Korea’s main patron and economic sponsor.
Nothing could be more welcome for Kim Jong-un than the prospect of a summit with Abe. It’s Kim’s last and best chance to secure meaningful economic aid and legitimacy from a nation with the means to bestow both. Nothing could better vindicate Kim’s five months of saber rattling like getting Japan to fill the void left by S. Korea and China at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the Diamond Mountain resort and various projects in Rason and other special economic zones.
Abe has the ideal cover to keep his pas de deux with Kim from appearing to be seeking to support East Asia’s public enemy number one as a vehicle of self-promotion or opportunistic national aggrandizement. Seventeen Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korean agents between 1977 and 1983. During a 2002 summit between former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and the late Kim Jong-il Pyongyang admitted to having abducted 13. It returned five abductees and their families but insisted all the others were dead. Having good reason to disbelieve Pyongyang, Tokyo has made the return of all abductees or their remains a foreign policy priority.
To be sure, making some substantial progress on the abduction issue would in itself elevate Abe’s stature even further than it has been by aggressive debasing of yen. But to both he and Kim the real objective of a summit would be to elevate the stature of both leaders and of their respective nations by resolving the much bigger issue on the minds of everyone concerned — ending N. Korea’s nuclear weapons development and restoring its economy to a condition that will allow the proper feeding of all its citizens.
If an Abe-Kim summit manages to take a step toward achieving those objectives, both leaders will have strengthened their personal prospects immeasurably. In addition to trumping Beijing and Seoul in regional politics, Abe will have blunted a challenge from the right by charismatic Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto who has recently appeared to be competing with Abe to sound like the more rabid nationalist. Kim will be able to stick a tongue out at Beijing and Seoul while securing a foundation for his stated goal of raising his people’s living standard.