TOKYO – Japan’s new prime minister, stepping from the shadows of his longtime supporting role, said Saturday in his debut at the U.N. General Assembly that he’s willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without any conditions.
The offer comes as Yoshihide Suga — only days into his tenure — tries to do what his predecessor and former boss, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, couldn’t: resolve the decades-old issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens, along with the North’s growing nuclear and missile program.
“Establishing constructive relations between Japan and North Korea will not only serve the interests of both sides but will also greatly contribute to regional peace and stability,” Suga said in a recorded speech that came Friday afternoon at the COVID-hit annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. in New York.
“I will miss no opportunity to take actions with all my dedication," he said.
In a nod, perhaps, to criticism that he is something of a lightweight on foreign policy issues, Suga noted that he has worked for many years on the abduction issue, which remains a big domestic concern in Japan. Abe had also offered to meet with Kim during his own tenure.
Suga's international debut is being watched closely because he has spent a large part of his career supporting Abe with backroom bureaucratic maneuvers and in largely scripted, sometimes prickly dealings with the media.
His speech was relatively straightforward, with no resounding rhetoric or wildly innovative ideas to improve Japan's rocky ties with the nations it terrorized in WWII or its decades-long economic malaise.
Much as he’s done domestically in the week and a half that he’s been prime minister, Suga is eager to emphasize that he’ll continue the foreign policy efforts Abe championed in his nearly eight-year rule.
Continuity won’t necessarily thrill Japan’s Asian neighbors. Many have been hoping that Suga will distance himself from the hawkish Abe, who regularly questioned the narrative of Japan as a war criminal.
Suga’s cautious approach is largely due to his lack of experience on the world stage, in part because his job as chief cabinet secretary required him to manage disasters and other crises at home. But it also may be linked to his temperament.
“He is not a visionary,” according to Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. He is “a capable lieutenant who will follow Abe’s foreign policy.”
Because of the constraints on travel and face-to-face contact caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Suga also won’t be able to pursue the personal diplomacy that Abe favored and “will muddle along rather than breaking any new ground,” Kingston said.
Suga maintains that he was involved behind the scenes on big foreign policy issues and in building relationships with foreign leaders.
Much as Abe did, Suga is looking to emphasize ties with the United States, Japan’s top ally.
Suga has praised Abe’s skills in forging personal ties with U.S. President Donald Trump, something he said that he might not be able to do as well. Abe’s close relationship with Trump, much marveled at in the Japanese press, was said to be key to keeping U.S.-Japan ties firm. And Suga may have played a bigger part in building that relationship than is widely known.
In recent comments published in Bungei Shunju magazine, Suga said he was the one who insisted on establishing ties with the Trump side when nobody was seriously expecting a Trump victory.
Suga noted that the coronavirus pandemic, while an “unprecedented crisis,” has also “brought the international community back to cooperation from its tendencies towards division and isolation.”
Suga also said that Tokyo is determined to host the postponed Olympics next summer as proof that the world is bouncing back from the virus.
Japan, with just over 80,000 cases and 1,500 deaths, has so far managed to avoid the explosive spread of infections seen in the United States and Europe, despite its nonbinding shutdown requests. Experts say the widely accepted use of face masks and regular handwashing and sanitizing might have helped, though there’s worry about another wave of illness this autumn and winter. The government is now further relaxing restrictions on tourism and public events to try to stimulate economic recovery.
Suga's behind-the-scenes operations are one thing, but questions still abound about whether a leader who has not previously served in key diplomatic or defense posts will be able to navigate the much more visible arena of high-stakes global diplomacy.
His lack of foreign policy experience is a worry even among his party colleagues, said Tsuneo Watanabe, a Sasakawa Peace Foundation senior research fellow who is an expert on Japan-U.S. relations.
That said, Suga has good contacts with the country’s powerful bureaucrats and with skilled policy advisers in the Foreign Ministry, Watanabe said.
His approach will probably “be pretty much the same as Abe’s,” focused on a stronger security alliance with the United States while balancing economic ties with China, Watanabe said.
Among the other strong pieces of evidence that Suga wants foreign policy continuity with Abe is his appointment of Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother and a military hawk, as defense minister.
Suga will face perhaps his biggest challenge in trying to settle ties with South Korea. The countries’ trade and political relations plummeted under Abe after Seoul claimed that Abe was whitewashing Japan’s historical crimes.
“If Abe’s successor intends to serve the long-term interest and avoid further deterioration of the Japan-South Korea relations, now is the time to explore the chance for a reset in relations,” Kazuhiko Togo, a former diplomat and a visiting professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, wrote in a recent East Asia Forum article.
At the very least, Suga “is not as reviled in Seoul as Abe, so that might create an opening,” Kingston said, although much will depend on how Seoul handles things, as Tokyo is unlikely to take the initiative.
In some ways, the virtual setup of this year’s U.N. General Assembly might benefit Suga.
He has “vast experience” dealing with scripted media situations, but he is also “sullen and prickly with tough questions," Kingston said, and when he eventually travels as prime minister, he, like Abe, could get in trouble with a more assertive foreign press because he “will not be able to get away with the evasive tactics he favors."
Foster Klug, AP's news director for Japan, the Koreas, Australia and the South Pacific, has covered Asia at UNGA since 2005. Follow him at www.twitter.com/apklug. Follow longtime Tokyo correspondent Mari Yamaguchi at www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi