Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is well-known for being firm toward Pyongyang and demonstrating solidarity with Washington. More than any other politician, he has made retrieving Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea his political mission. Moreover, during his summit with President Barack Obama in January he declared, “The trust and the bond in our alliance is back.”
But something happened last week that seems unlike Abe. Isao Iijima, a special adviser to the prime minister, made a secret trip to Pyongyang for reasons unknown, although many are speculating he is trying to advance dialogue on resolving the abduction issue and normalizing relations. The secret nature of the visit and display of flexibility with Pyongyang is inconsistent with Abe’s past firmness and closeness with the U.S. While Abe is no doubt playing smart domestic politics, his efforts may carry unwanted diplomatic consequences.
Iijima’s visit comes at an awkward time. After a few months of provocative rhetoric from Pyongyang targeting the U.S., South Korea and Japan, things went quiet in May. Japan, for its part, maintains a firm stance against North Korea that includes stiff sanctions. After a four-year hiatus of dialogue, talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang resumed last August over the repatriation of Japanese remains. Then, because of Pyongyang’s launch of a long-range rocket, Tokyo once again broke off talks in December.