(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 19)

A summit between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to be becoming more feasible, which raises a key question about South Korea's preparedness to buffer any possible fallout on its relations with Japan. Optimism about a Kishida-Kim summit is based on facts. First and foremost, holding such top-level talks would be a mutual effort, rather than North Korea's wishful thinking as reported in some South Korean media outlets. Japan wants it. So does the North Korean leader. Kim has nothing to lose if the summit is held, and a lot more to gain. A Japan-North Korea summit would allow Kim to gain much-needed financial incentives. It would also boost his pride as he will feel he is a highly sought-after leader. Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to visit Pyongyang for a summit with Kim soon, after the North Korean leader paid a visit to the Russian Far East region last September. Second, conditions for the Kishida-Kim summit are ripe. Most importantly, Japan has the U.S.' back. When the possibility of a Japan-North Korea summit was reported after Kim's sister Yo-jong raised it in her recent statement released through the North's official Korean Central News Agency, South Korean media outlets downplayed it and predicted that making it happen would be an uphill battle. The biggest hurdle they mentioned was the ongoing trilateral partnership between the U.S., South Korea and Japan largely to cope with a provocative North Korea and ever more assertive China. If the Kishida-Kim summit is held, they predicted it would inevitably undermine the partnership, and therefore it would be tough to draw support from the two other stakeholders. But it appears South Korea has underestimated the drive of the two parties to improve their relations. The U.S. fully supports Japan's efforts to get talks underway. "Not only the U.S. but also its allies' involvement in North Korea is something to support. We will continue to cooperate closely (with our allies such as South Korea and Japan)," said Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior adviser to the National Security Council (NSC). The U.S. support clears potential hurdles for a Kishida-Kim summit. The summit, if held, will help de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula as it can serve as a platform through which the U.S., South Korea or both can send their messages to the North or vice versa, albeit indirectly. But there is a risk for South Korea. If the two leaders agree to meet for a summit, it will inevitably affect and change the nature of the trilateral partnership because North Korea is one of the key targets. Japan - maybe the U.S. as well - will not want to agitate North Korea. After President Yoon Suk Yeol took office, South Korea and Japan agreed to improve bilateral relations for the sake of the trilateral partnership with the United States. South Korea and Japan agreed to look beyond historical animosity for the greater cause of regional security. If Japan-North Korea relations improve, Japan may find it difficult to balance its ties betwee n the two Koreas which are technically still at war, and Japan's balancing act can affect its ties with South Korea negatively. A Kishida-Kim summit could also complicate South Korea's diplomatic options. Policymakers need to be flexible, keeping all options open and drawing up tailored strategies based on scenarios to better protect South Korea in an ever-changing diplomatic environment. In fact, Seoul should have already prepared for it, because Kishida has revealed his willingness several times since last year to meet the North Korean leader to completely solve the issue of Japanese abductees. His latest remark about the summit came last week in his speech to the parliament. Kim Yo-jong responded to Kishida favorably. She said the two nations have no good reason to keep each other at a distance, adding that two stumbling blocks need to be removed before the summit. To improve bilateral relations, she said Japan should stop criticizing North Korea for exercising its "right to defend" itself and made it clear that the issue about Japanese abductees must be taken off the table. She said that if these two conditions are met, Kishida's Pyongyang visit will happen. According to Japan's foreign ministry, North Korea abducted 17 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. During a 2002 summit between then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, the North admitted to the abductions but said the number of Japanese abductees is 13. Five of them returned to Japan after the summit. The North said that the other eight died, and thus claimed that the issue was closed. But Japan claimed there were four more victims. Japan and North Korea reportedly had informal meetings twice in a third country in March and May last year to resolve the issue. Kim Jong-un's rare sympathy message sent to Kishida in January came months after media reports about the two sides' secret talks over the abductees. It won't take long to hear whether the Kishida-Kim summit will be held or not , according to an expert. Hosaka Yuji, a professor of Sejong University, said Kishida and Kim are expected to make their final decisions about the summit sooner rather than later, citing a confidant of Kishida. "Akira Amari, who is Kishida's confidant, said on a television program last week that (Japan and North Korea) did everything they could do, and the ball is now in the court of the two leaders. What he meant is that Kishida and Kim will make their final decisions regarding whether they are going to meet for a summit or not," he told The Korea Times. Source: Yonhap News Agency

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