TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet United States President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday (June 7), with their bilateral alliance under strain by a seeming chasm in their approach to North Korea and trade.
North Korea will be the dominant issue at their seventh summit meeting, Japanese diplomats said. Trade issues, with Japan mulling over a challenge against the US at the World Trade Organisation, will take a back seat until the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Canada later this week.
Tokyo, which has long stressed that there is "no daylight" in policy coordination with Washington, angled for the meeting so that Mr Abe will be among the last few world leaders to privately have Mr Trump's ear before the highly-anticipated US-North Korea summit.
Mr Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, with their summit to begin at 9am at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa.
There have been anxieties in Japanese circles since Mr Trump said on June 1 that he does not want to use the phrase "maximum pressure" any more. Japan, on many occasions, has looked to history to warn the world against being taken in by the North's charm offensive.
Just hours after Mr Trump softened his tone on North Korea, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera reportedly had to make last-minute edits to his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, by jettisoning "maximum pressure", for "maintain pressure as currently imposed".
While the White House has since stressed that there will be no relaxation of sanctions until the North denuclearises, Tokyo is still concerned that any easing of the hawkish rhetoric will result in more cases of sanction evasion.
And given the potential for different interpretations of what "denuclearisation" precisely means, Mr Abe will be reiterating Japan's stance that there should be no easing of sanctions until the "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" (CVID) of the North's nuclear stockpile and ballistic missiles.
This will include the short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that would leave Japan in its crosshairs, and not just the intercontinental ballistic missiles which have the potential of striking the US mainland.
"Japan's role is to remind Trump of the many possible 'traps' in dealing with North Korea so that the coming summit will not end up just a political show," Keio University expert Yasushi Watanabe told The Straits Times, adding that recent messages from Washington might "sound a bit confusing" to Japan.
Added Associate Professor Tetsuo Kotani of Japan's Meizai University: "The US is now taking a more low-key approach, and so Japan will find it difficult to emphasise the necessity of maximum pressure."
This strident approach has drawn pushback from both Koreas.
South Korea Defence Minister Song Young Moo, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, said Japan's hawkish attitude was not conducive for talks. "Just because we have been tricked by North Korea before does not guarantee we will be tricked in the future. If we start to think like this, then we can never negotiate with them and we can never look to achieve peace with them," he said.
North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also said in a commentary late on Monday that Japan risked being "left out of (the) mosquito net".
Using the acronym of the North's official name Democratic People's Republic of Korea, it added: "Japan is bound to be ridiculed by the international community and driven out of history if it persists in escalating confrontation with the DPRK under the pretext of the already resolved 'abduction issue', failing to acclimatise itself to the new situation."
This "abduction issue" remains highly emotive for Japan. Mr Abe has made it his top priority to ensure the return of Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korean agents to train as spies in the 1970s and 1980s.
Tokyo officially recognises 17 abductees, though hundreds more are suspected to be victims. Pyongyang, which insists the matter has been fully resolved, however acknowledges 13 abductees. Five of them were returned in 2002. Of the remainder, Pyongyang has said eight have died and that the other four had never stepped foot in the country.
Mr Abe will want to ensure that Mr Trump, at his meeting with Mr Kim, rejects any assertion that the matter has been resolved.
The Kyodo news agency this week cited sources as saying that the Japanese leader may also ask Mr Trump to convey that Japan could negotiate the normalisation of ties and an extension of economic cooperation so long as progress is made on this front.
That would be a positive step as Japan gropes for a resolution on the issue, experts said, as this means Tokyo would have to ease up on its rhetoric for a more flexible approach.
"Sanctions are for operational applications, not for oral advertisement," Dr Katsuhisa Furukawa, a former UN expert monitoring sanctions against the North, said.
"As long as Japan sticks itself to the current position, I am concerned that Japan would not be able to launch diplomatic efforts effectively towards the DPRK, which could open some chance to make some breakthrough on the abduction issues."