Editorial: Japan must step up diplomatic efforts to address North Korea

This has been a long time coming. More than six months after Shinzo Abe took office as prime minister, a meeting has finally taken place between the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea. The meeting between Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kisida and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, held in Brunei, was the first such meeting in nine months and the first since two new administrations were installed.

This should have been a step toward improving relations between the two countries, but the meeting, against the backdrop of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), lasted only 30 minutes. Considering the current chill between Japan and South Korea, restoring this relationship fully will require far more effort.

There was hope that a ministerial meeting, attended by the foreign minister of North Korea, would produce a breakthrough in the impasse over nuclear arms and missiles. But no progress was made at these discussions.

Under such circumstances, Japan must take a broader perspective and first deepen its ties with South Korea.

It appears that the United States, an ally of both nations, played a role in realizing the meeting between the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers. The United States may be concerned that stability in East Asia will remain a distant goal if relations between Japan and South Korea do not improve.

The meeting, however, leaves an uneasy impression with the South Korean side making blunt demands of Japan with regard to its view of history and other issues. In step with public opinion in South Korea, President Park Geun-hye has shown a posture of keeping her distance from Japan. Such conditions make it hard to envision a summit meeting between the leaders of Japan and South Korea taking place any time soon.

Meanwhile, concerns involving North Korea have grown more complex.

North Korea seems to have shifted to a pursuit of dialogue, rather than all-out provocation, by suggesting a return to the six-party talks, among other moves. Its brinksmanship has only invited criticism from the international community, with China, too, deciding to impose a financial hit via sanctions. North Korea clearly senses that its tactics have led to a standoff.

North Korea, however, will continue to be a thorny challenge. At the ministerial meeting, North Korea denounced the threat posed by the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Such condemnation can be interpreted as the flip side of its true desire to call for direct dialogue with the United States. After all, the rift between the two nations is still pronounced and a path forward for resuming the six-party talks has not been devised.

It is time, then, for Japan to play a larger role. To address the challenges of nuclear arms and missiles, there is ultimately no other way but to pursue continuing dialogue.

Of concern is the fact that not only relations between Japan and South Korea, but also relations between Japan and China, have turned chilly. Mr. Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, was reportedly not even able to get in touch with his Chinese counterpart. This plainly shows that Japan’s diplomatic capability has declined.

In addition, last month the new South Korean president met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a visit to China which took place prior to a visit to Japan, a break from past practice. Among the international community, the view is growing that China and South Korea have come together to lower Japan’s presence, so-called “Japan Passing.”

If this trend continues, Japan will be unable to rely on the understanding of the international community in resolving the abduction issue, a critical concern for this nation. The decline of Japan’s standing in the world will be to the benefit of North Korea.

Japan must urge the concerned parties to resume the framework of the six-party talks by working proactively with South Korea. South Korea and China no doubt agree wholeheartedly with Japan when it comes to the fact that stability in Asia will never be realized as long as North Korea is left to its own devices.

Japan must step up its diplomatic efforts so that the situation with North Korea does not spiral out of control. In this way, relations with South Korea and China can be improved. Such thinking would be welcomed, too, because the six-party talks are our only forum for pursuing multilateral dialogue in East Asia.

(Originally published on July 3, 2013)