TOKYO — Japan’s hard-line prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had grown accustomed to being President Trump’s favorite foreign leader. But now he is suddenly scrambling to remain relevant as the U.S. president embarks on a daring diplomatic gambit with North Korea.
When North Korea undertook a charm offensive linked to the Winter Olympics a month ago, Japan’s prime minister warned anyone who would listen not to fall for Kim Jong Un’s “smile diplomacy” and to keep up the “maximum pressure” campaign.
Now, with both the South Korean and American leaders planning summits with Kim, Abe is trying to minimize the appearance of differences with Trump.
“I don’t believe North Korea is using this opportunity simply to buy more time,” he said after meeting Tuesday with Suh Hoon, the South Korean intelligence chief who met with Kim and Trump last week.
“North Korea now has to face important negotiations, including the inter-Korean summit and a summit with the United States,” Abe told Suh, according to a readout from South Korea’s presidential Blue House.
The prime minister did not supply the same readout. He said simply that his basic position remained the same: that North Korea must take action to denuclearize and that the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s must be dealt with at the same time.
“It is extremely important that North Korea take concrete steps to turn its words into actions,” Abe told reporters after the meeting.
Trump has said he believes North Korea is “sincere” in its offer to hold talks on its nuclear program, although the White House has said it wants a concrete commitment to denuclearization before any summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.
That summit is tentatively scheduled for May, following an inter-Korean summit at the end of April.
Abe and Trump had been walking in lock-step on North Korea, both promoting a strategy of applying “maximum pressure” through sanctions on Kim’s government to force it to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Both voiced suspicion of efforts led by Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s progressive president, to use diplomatic engagement to achieve the same outcome.
The split was starkly illustrated at the opening of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, just over a month ago. Abe and Vice President Pence remained seated as the unified Korean team entered the stadium, and both avoided interacting with Kim’s sister.
That turned out to be an error of judgment on Abe’s part, said Gerald L. Curtis, a renowned Japan scholar.
The opening ceremony set off a cascade of diplomacy, beginning with a summit invitation from Kim to Moon and leading to a summit invitation from Kim to Trump. Trump hastily accepted that invitation last Thursday — without warning Abe that he would do so.
“Abe made a major mistake at the PyeongChang Olympics by putting on that mad, upset, angry face,” Curtis said. “Now Japan is not a major player. The Chinese and the South Koreans and the Americans are all pushing this [pro-talks] line, and Abe is scrambling to get on board.”
Abe may not have seen which way the winds were turning in part because of his distrust of Moon, as well as the Japanese government’s general antipathy toward South Korea.
Historical disputes, particularly over Japan’s use of Korean women as sex slaves during World War II, continue to shadow the countries’ relations. Abe’s government is incensed that Moon’s administration has reopened discussion about a 2015 deal that was supposed to be the “final and irreversible” statement on the matter.
That anger was compounded at a state dinner for Trump in November, when Moon served shrimp from islets that are the subject of a festering territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan.
The divergence in approach between Japan and the United States could hardly come at a worse time for Abe.
Trump decided to accept Kim’s invitation on the same day that he imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from countries including Japan, despite Tokyo’s pleas to recognize their alliance.
It also comes amid revelations that have damaged Abe’s domestic standing and reignited doubts about his political future.
The Finance Ministry this week admitted to removing the name of Abe’s wife from documents related to a heavily discounted land deal for a controversial nationalist school in Osaka. Abe had strongly denied any cronyism by him or his wife, but the ministry’s admission that it had doctored the paperwork has raised doubts about the process.
Abe’s support ratings have declined as a result. The latest survey from the Yomiuri Shimbun, a paper that is generally supportive of the prime minister, found that his approval rating had slumped six points, to 48 percent, the first time it had fallen below 50 percent since parliamentary elections in October.