News analysis

Japan's Abe fails to reach common ground with South Korea's Moon on North Korea

South Korea's President Moon Jae In (right) talks with Japan's PM Shinzo Abe (left) during their meeting in Pyeongchang on Feb 9, 2018, ahead of the opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. PHOTO: AFP

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stoked anger and protests among his conservative supporters for attending the Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, sought to find common ground with South Korean President Moon Jae In.

Yet, he left South Korea on Saturday night having been told essentially to butt out of domestic Korean politics. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's invitation to Mr Moon for a summit in Pyongyang has also left Tokyo worried.

"I will say what needs to be said," Mr Abe had told his aides before leaving Japan for his third bilateral meeting with Mr Moon, reported the Nikkei Asian Review. "It will be a tough meeting for Mr Moon."

Yet, by South Korean media accounts, it appears like it was Mr Abe who emerged the loser from the trip - though he had also the chance to raise Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions and its abduction programme in a brief chat with the North's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam.

When he insisted to Mr Moon that South Korea and the United States should resume their joint Foal Eagle military exercise after the Olympics, he was told not to meddle in the South's "sovereignty and internal affairs". And while Mr Abe tried to impress on Mr Moon the need to uphold a "final and irreversible" bilateral pact on the comfort women issue according to international norms, Mr Moon suggested that Japan should instead be the one that ought to reflect on its history.

Though political observers have not expected the two leaders to see eye to eye on history, the seeming chasm on their approach to North Korea has proven to be a wider concern. Officials in Tokyo believe Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between the US and its two allies, and fear that Mr Moon - a known pacifist - will rush headlong into talks with the North.

A Kyodo News Agency poll also found that 53 per cent of Japanese favoured ramping up pressure to make the North give up its nuclear and missile programmes.

Kyodo quoted a Japanese government source as saying: "It is clear to see that Kim Jong Un's agenda is to get a dialogue offensive under way. North Korea is probably trying to give the impression that it is taking the lead in dialogue."

It added in a news analysis that "Seoul's excessively conciliatory stance to Pyongyang may serve to accelerate the nuclear crisis".

Even so, Mr Moon sought to allay the "baseless" concerns by emphasising that his "dialogue" strategy and "pressure" strategy are not mutually exclusive. Media reports also noted he had met Mr Kim's invitation with cautious optimism by saying that "necessary conditions" must be created for a summit to be held.

And while US Vice-President Mike Pence sought to put on a united front, government sources noted how he had asked Mr Abe to ride with him to a reception so they could discuss how to react to the two Koreas' rapproachement.

The unscheduled meeting, the sources said, underscored the need for the two sides "to work closely to continue to remind South Korea that it should not move any closer towards North Korea".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2018, with the headline Japan's Abe fails to reach common ground with South Korea's Moon on North Korea. Subscribe