Japan’s next leader has a chance to reshape the country’s North Korea policy
Tokyo has long insisted on resolving the abduction issue first, but the public increasingly prioritizes denuclearization.
Earlier this month, after a collapse in his poll ratings, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced he would stand down as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Given the LDP’s majority in parliament, the winner of the party leadership vote on Sept. 29 will replace Suga as prime minister, and he or she will almost certainly go on to win late November’s general election thanks to a divided and distrusted opposition.
These elections will not immediately create any dramatic change in Tokyo’s stance on North Korea, which has long been inhibited by demands to resolve the abduction issue before engaging Pyongyang in other arenas.
But it could trigger a longer-term shift in Japan’s approach if the new leader prioritizes denuclearization negotiations, in keeping with changes in public opinion away from the abduction issue. The two strongest candidates have already called for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The upcoming elections thus stand to make Tokyo a real player for the first time in twenty years — though the new prime minister’s real challenge may be convincing Pyongyang to trust them enough to engage again.
In the past, faction politics decided LDP elections. The system has now changed, increasing the importance of grassroots LDP members’ votes and putting more focus on policy debates.
Should no one win a majority on the first ballot, a runoff between the top two candidates could shift the balance back to lawmakers’ votes based on whom the other candidates choose to support. This makes it difficult to strongly predetermine a winner this time.
Of the four candidates, two men and two women, former defense minister and current “vaccine tsar” Taro Kono is the leading candidate both in public polling and within LDP ranks. Both Suga and former LDP Secretary- General Shigeru Ishiba, who pulled out of the race, have backed Kono, making him the strongest contender as of this writing.
The primary threat to Kono comes from former foreign minister Fumio Kishida — current leader of the Kochikai faction, historically the most prestigious and moderate faction in the LDP and the preferred candidate of the LDP’s younger generation.
According to a poll from the Mainichi newspaper, Kishida has the support of more than 30% of the LDP’s parliamentary lawmakers. Although Kono is more likely to win in the first ballot, a runoff situation would increase Kishida’s chances to win through factional politics.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who still wields considerable influence, has indicated he will back nationalist Sanae Takaichi, citing their shared visions and conservative values.
On Sept. 16, just before the deadline for nominations, the LDP’s executive acting secretary-general and former women’s empowerment minister Seiko Noda also joined the race. Stating that she is running to show the public “how diverse the LDP is,” Noda’s candidacy is expected to siphon votes away from Kono and make it harder for him to win a majority in the first round, gaming the vote in Kishida’s favor.
In government since 1955 with only a few interruptions, the LDP is indeed far from monolithic. Power shifts between and within LDP factions have brought to government very different political visions within a broad conservative spectrum. Although the campaigns will focus on domestic issues, each of the candidates would bring sharply different directions to the country’s foreign policy.
North Korea is an extremely sensitive issue in Japan and a political minefield for candidates. This is never going to change as long as Tokyo makes the “complete resolution” of the abduction issue a precondition for engagement with Pyongyang on other issues, a lesson Shinzo Abe learned the hard way.
Having been on the front line of the Koizumi government’s 2001 breakthrough with Pyongyang on abductions, Abe focused his own approach to the DPRK completely on the resolution of the issue, even establishing a new dedicated cabinet position when he first came to power in 2006.
But after dialogue with North Korea that began in 2014 collapsed in 2016, the premise that the abduction issue must be resolved first left Abe’s government paralyzed and unable to act when U.S. President Donald Trump started his summit diplomacy with Kim Jong Un.
However, there has been a shift in public opinion over the last decade.
According to a Yomiuri poll, the Japanese public in 2014 wanted policies to address the abduction issue (66%) more than denuclearization (57%) or abandonment of missiles (33%). But already in 2017, these positions had reversed, with more focus on denuclearization (69%) and the missile program (49%) than abductions (46%).
In 2019, when Abe offered Kim a summit without preconditions, his decision enjoyed the support of over 60% of the Japanese population, according to a Kyodo News poll. Tokyo’s request that Trump meet the families of the abductees, showing Abe had not forgotten the issue, was enough to avoid a bitter domestic debate.
This continuing shift in public opinion opens a narrow path for a new prime minister, less tied to Abe’s legacy, to engage Pyongyang. The political blow Abe suffered from the shock of Trump’s summit diplomacy and Tokyo’s belated decision to engage without preconditions may have also created an opportunity for a new leader to chart a new course.
TO ENGAGE OR NOT TO ENGAGE
The problem is whether the current candidates would use this opportunity if elected. The answer from Abe’s preferred candidate, Sanae Takaichi, is a clear “no.”
Described as the most “hawkish” among the candidates, she wants to amend Japan’s
Constitution, suggesting an explicit reference to National Defense Forces instead of Self-Defense Forces. For that to happen, Takaichi would need a shift in public support that only a nuclear, hostile North Korea can create. It would be counterproductive for her to engage or even only support any talks with Pyongyang.page5image54027264page5image54029376page5image54029568
Seiko Noda is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Takaichi. Her pacifist views are well-known and were confirmed during a debate on Sept. 18 when she proposed using Japan’s postwar experience as a pacifist nation to mediate between the U.S. and China. But that fact might make it politically harder for her to shift North Korea policy than other candidates.
The two strongest candidates, Kono and Kishida, both called for talks with leader Kim Jong Un during the debate.
As a politician from Hiroshima, Kishida has consistently argued for Japan to promote nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He might use any electoral honeymoon to prioritize nuclear talks, and proactively seek to pursue his denuclearization agenda in a U.S.-led multilateral setting.
Japan could move from being a “spoiler” to the “provider” it was under the Agreed Framework, and could finally become a serious stakeholder in nuclear talks. In a previous interview, Kishida had already stated he would follow the U.S. lead on North Korea and, with a green light from Washington, meet with Kim Jong Un.
Kono would be less proactive. Referred to as a “dove” in the party, Kono has been a hardliner on North Korea. However, the need to restore Japan’s ties with its neighbours is expected to drive his foreign policy.
His excellent relations with Washington — the principal reason Abe appointed him to replace Kishida as foreign minister in 2017 — might allow him to pivot Tokyo’s diplomacy toward Asia without upsetting the U.S.-Japan relationship.
In that case, having room to maneuver on North Korea would reap dividends for Tokyo as it seeks to improve relations with Seoul, Beijing and even Moscow. Where others lead, Kono could follow — to his, and Japan’s, advantage.
Glyn Ford & Marialaura De Angelis (2021). Japan’s next leader has a chance to reshape the country’s North Korea policy, NK News, 27 September.
Edited by Bryan Betts