“During my visit to Japan last fall, I met with Japanese families who endured the terrible heartbreak of having their loved ones abducted by the North Korean regime,” Donald Trump said at Mar-a-Lago Wednesday after two days of meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We want to see these families reunited as soon as possible. And I know for a fact that it’s one of the truly most important things on Shinzo’s mind. We talk about it often. So important to you, and we’re going to do everything possible to have them brought back and bring them back to Japan. I gave you that promise.”
That promise was perhaps the most important thing Abe got from the summit at Trump’s ornate Palm Beach resort this week.
North Korea’s three Kim leaders have committed many crimes, but the one that has gripped the Japanese public for decades has been the abduction of their country’s nationals, from Japan and elsewhere. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father of the current leader, ordered the kidnappings of foreigners to give their agents language instruction from native speakers.
Kim Jong-il, in an apparent bid to obtain Japanese aid, tried to admit to the crimes and release five abductees in 2004, but the effort was mishandled and backfired badly.
The issue drives Tokyo’s dealings with Pyongyang to this day, in large part due to the persistent efforts of Sakie Yokota, mother of one abductee Megumi Yokota, who was 13 at the time she was taken from her seaside home in 1977. Trump, during his November trip to Tokyo, met with family members, including Ms. Yokota.
Trump’s predecessors have talked about the abductee problem when prompted by Japanese prime ministers, but no American leader has done much. The issue, when compared to Pyongyang’s development of weapons of mass destruction, hasn’t been considered important by Washington policymakers, who have ignored Tokyo’s views on this issue during the drawn-out Six-Party talks.
As a result, Japan hasn’t received much international support on the matter of their abductees, even though the Kims took nationals of other countries as well. For instance, it appears North Korea was behind the abduction of American David Sneddon, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in southwestern China in 2004. Pyongyang almost certainly snatched a number of South Koreans, too.
Trump, from his heartfelt remarks Wednesday, appears ready to take up Japan’s cause, even though it might complicate negotiations with North Korea. He understands this is something the public there would very much respond to. As he said Wednesday to Japanese broadcaster NHK, “Abduction is a very important issue for me because it’s very important to your prime minister.”
Trump has come a long way in gauging the overall strategic importance of Japan to the United States. In March 2016 on the campaign trail, he talked about walking away from America’s alliances in Asia, and specifically mentioned the Japanese one.
Trump as president has a different perspective, as he should. An ambitious and bold Beijing is taking on America across the board. The United States therefore needs all the friends it can get. That’s why Washington needs to assure Tokyo that whatever agreement it reaches with Pyongyang over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Japan’s security in the region will be at the top of its agenda.
That’s because Japan is America’s “cornerstone” ally in Asia. This alliance transcends today’s current events for two reasons. First, for about 150 years, Washington has drawn America’s Western defense perimeter not off the coasts of California, Hawaii, or even Guam, but off the east coast of Asia, where the sprawling Japanese archipelago anchors the northern edge of that line. Japan hosts about 50,000 American military personnel in a string of facilities, many of them guarding strategic chokepoints in the Ryukyu chain.
Second, American policy since the 19th century has attempted to prevent any one power from dominating East Asia. At the moment, Japan, and its big friend India, are the counterweights to the increasingly aggressive China.
China has been trying to grab territory in an arc from India in the south to South Korea in the north. At the same time, it has been attempting to appropriate for itself the international waters of, and the airspace over, the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas. Chinese planes and vessels have dangerously intercepted U.S. ones operating on or over those bodies of water. Moreover, if Beijing is ultimately successful in keeping America out of its peripheral seas, it will attempt to close off the Western Pacific, as its recent activity there suggests.
These Chinese ambitions create a challenge Washington cannot ignore, for if there has been any consistent foreign policy of the United States over the course of two centuries, it has been the defense of freedom of navigation.
At the moment, Japan is the most loyal of America’s allies in the region, something especially important at a time when Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Moon Jae-in of South Korea, the leaders of other alliance partners, have worked hard to undermine American policy.
In contrast, Donald and Shinzo—the American and Japanese leaders now refer to each other by their first names in public, as they did Wednesday—get along well. Abe has assiduously courted his American counterpart, and Trump has responded.
Abe, however, may not last long. Mired in a scandal back home over government support for a private school, he may not win a third term in September as leader of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, which would force him to step down as prime minister. There is even talk of him resigning in June.
Yet American ties will endure. Trump and Abe are not the first pair of American and Japanese leaders who have bonded. George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi seemed to genuinely like each other, as did, most famously, Ron and Yasu, Reagan and Nakasone.
“Shinzo and I have developed a very close relationship,” Trump said Tuesday at the beginning of the Mar-a-Lago meetings. “We speak all the time. And our nations, I think, have never been closer than they are right now.”
That remark, despite the use of a superlative, does not appear to be Trumpian exaggeration. The U.S. and Japan, held together by shared values and interests, now face a common threat. Trump’s putting the abduction issue front and center, the first time an American president has done that, will win hearts and minds in Japan and is a sign of just how close Washington and Tokyo have become.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.