U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe off visiting North Korea, concerned that the trip could undermine concerted efforts to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear program.
Kerry called Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and said any such visit would hurt coordination between Tokyo, Washington and Seoul to rein in Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs. He urged Japan to consult fully with its allies.
Washington has also voiced disapproval of Tokyo's easing of sanctions on North Korea.
The Abe administration has approached North Korea aiming to emerge from its diplomatic isolation in Northeast Asia and to resolve the issue of Japanese people abducted by the North during the 1970s and 80s.
Abe sent a special envoy to North Korea last year and officials from the two countries secretly met in Sweden in May this year, resulting in gradual easing of sanctions in exchange for a probe into the fate of the abduction victims.
Japan went so far as to say Abe could visit the North, and earlier this month eased restrictions on North Koreans who live in Japan transferring money to the North.
Seoul and Washington have said they do not oppose Tokyo's efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang and resolve the issue of abduction victims. But they have also warned Japan not to take steps that could give North Korea the impression that it can carry on with its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Most importantly, Japan's underhand approach to negotiations with North Korea has stoked concerns, with experts suspecting that Tokyo agreed to provide North Korea with massive economic aid in exchange for a summit between their leaders.
It has become quite evident that the Abe administration is using North Korea to pressure South Korea and China, a development the U.S. could not ignore. Kishida told Kerry that Abe does not intend to visit North Korea and confirmed that Tokyo has no plans to further ease sanctions against the North. He wants to visit Washington to offer additional explanations.
Japan has nothing to gain by stymieing international sanctions against North Korea, nor does it have the power do achieve this on its own. The problem is that it is prompting North Korea to believe it may be able to break the closed international ranks against its nuclear ambitions. Japan is also seeking to use North Korea as leverage as it becomes increasingly marginalized by South Korea and China.
Japan is a crucial U.S. ally in Asia, but Kerry's warning is a strong reminder that Washington will not tolerate unilateral attempts by Tokyo to warm up to Pyongyang. Abe may heed Washington's warning, but he is unlikely to throw away the leverage the North offers in complex negotiations with Seoul and Washington as his administration lurches further and further to the right.
Unless he stops now, he will become an intolerable burden for Washington.