By Wang Peng Source: CGTN Published: 2018-9-2
According to The Washington Post, Japan concealed a meeting held with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) from senior US officials in July.
The secret meeting, which has previously not been reported, took place in Vietnam between a top Japanese intelligence official, Shigeru Kitamura, and a senior DPRK official in charge of reunification, Kim Song Hye.
The US officials expressed irritation that Tokyo ensconced the meeting, given Washington's near-constant updates to Tokyo on its dealings with the DPRK.
The timing and Japan's growing strategic autonomy
Observers are asking why Japan and the DPRK held such a meeting. This may indicate that Japan is attempting to build a direct relationship with the DPRK, without guidance from Washington. It is undeniable that Japan is the US' long-time and most important ally in Northeast Asia.
But after following the US for decades, Japan is loosening itself from the grip of US power in certain areas, especially on issues in Asia.
In the 1980s, long-lasting economic prosperity offered Tokyo confidence and strength to make their own way, or even to "counterattack" America concerning the economy.
At that time, the Americans were shocked by the Japanese plutocracy's ambitious real estate acquisitions (e.g. the Rockefeller Building and other landmarks) and called the economic "samurai" practices "another Pearl Harbor."
If we call Japan's increasing autonomy in the 1990s "active-offensive strategy," the current turn should be understood as a " passive-defensive strategy" in an era of uncertainty regarding the US policy toward Asia (and also DPRK) and consequent US-Japan relations.
Abe could not wait for Trump's final decision or even the result of a possible "new US-DPRK relations." In that case, both Japan's strategic position in East Asia and Abe's personal prestige at home are in danger. This consideration may explain Tokyo's move to a large extent.
Another reason is the increasing uncertainty caused by Trump himself, who employs "strategic ambiguity" as a diplomatic tool.
The hostage issue
The Japanese government faces pressure on hostages held by the DPRK. Abe, who decided to take part in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election, also wants to solve the problem. So the hostage issue is highly possible the driver behind the secret meeting.
Reviewing the history of the six-party talks in the past decade, the Japanese government often put the issue of the hostages on the table. Although the international community has grown tired of such behavior, Abe has received growing popularity from his effort to address this issue at home.
Now considering the decreasing effectiveness of the so-called Abeconomy, as well as other negative domestic factors, it is reasonable for Abe to negotiate the hostage issue in order to boost his popularity and leadership election within the LDP.
So it is reported that Abe will also attend the fourth Eastern Economic Forum in Russia in mid-September, in order to meet with Kim Jong Un. Further details remain to be determined.
It is also said that Abe is looking forward to visiting China this October. He also tried to solve some disputes with Russia not long ago. Perhaps it is still too early to say that Japan is planning to change its Asia strategies right now, but it is safe to confirm that Tokyo is seeking larger strategic regional autonomy in the era of " Trumpian uncertainty."
Wang Peng is an associate research fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China.