The Impossible State Podcast: Episode 9: Left Out
August 6, 2018
H. ANDREW SCHWARTZ: North Korea is the impossible state. It’s a place that’s stumped leaders and policymakers for more than three decades.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From recording.) As he secured a commitment for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, our president also secured a promise from Chairman Kim to return the remains of all fallen U.S. servicemembers lost.
REPORTER: (From recording.) Where are we in the progress? A lot of people will say, hey, they’re still fueling and creating ICBMs.
MR. SCHWARTZ: It has a complex history and it has become the United States’ top national security priority.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From recording.) And I want to thank Chairman Kim, in front of the media, for fulfilling a promise that he made to me.
PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: (From recording.) There is not a second meeting that is currently locked in.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Each week on this show we’ll talk with the people who know the most about North Korea: CSIS’s Victor Cha, Mike Green, and Sue Mi Terry.
In this episode of The Impossible State, we’re talking to CSIS’s Victor Cha and a special guest in Japan. Motoko Rich is the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times. And she joins us by phone to discuss the view from Japan.
Motoko, thanks so much for joining us. We know you’ve been riding out the heatwave in Tokyo. And indeed, today over in North Korea, they’re talking about their own heatwave, where temperatures have topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And they’re saying that the high-temperature phenomenon is the largest, unprecedented, natural disaster they’ve ever had.
MOTOKO RICH: Well, that’s saying something for North Korea, given the famine. But, yes, I guess that wasn’t an entirely natural disaster.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Right.
VICTOR CHA: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, there’s been a heatwave in North Korea. I mean, with the heating up diplomacy, there’s a heatwave that’s also come to the region, so. (Laughs.)
MS. RICH: Yeah. Heat on all fronts, definitely.
MR. CHA: Right. (Laughs.)
MS. RICH: Well, thank you so much for having me.
MR. SCHWARTZ: What kind of heat are you – politically and diplomatically – are you feeling on your beat in Japan?
MS. RICH: Well, I think what’s interesting about Japan is that I think it’s fair to say that the prime minister here, Shinzo Abe, is one of the few foreign leaders who has remained kind of steadfast in his loyalty to President Trump. But despite that, when the president decided to switch gears and kind of do 180-degree turn on North Korea and pursue diplomacy rather than the kind of angry rhetoric of late last year, Japan was taken by surprise. They were not even informed before the president decided to accept Kim Jong-un’s invitation to the meeting that ended up in the summit in the Singapore in June.
And I had heard from some folks nearby that literally the moment when the South Koreans were briefing the press corps – as you – I’m sure you all remember, that kind of very dramatic moment when they were out on the White House driveway briefing the press corps that the President had accepted this invitation, President Trump got on the phone with Shinzo Abe to say, oh, by the way, I’ve done this thing. So I think that it came as a surprise, and that ever since Japan has sort of been scrambling to kind of stay relevant, as it were, in the conversation and diplomatic maneuvering with North Korea, and has felt a little bit left out.
And I think North Korea has also kind of seized upon that and used a lot of kind of ramped up rhetoric. So at a moment when they were pursuing kind of a charm offensive diplomatically with the United States, and virtually every other country, they were continuing to use very brash and aggressive rhetoric towards Japan. Which is not entirely surprising, given the history between the two countries. Japan obviously occupied both North and South Korea when they were a unified country. There’s still a lot of resentment about that in both sides of the peninsula. So Japan’s kind of an easy punching bag in that way, if you’re just talking about rhetoric.
But I think that Japan has been anxious about being left out of the conversation about how to handle North Korea, and particularly since Japan was the most steadfast ally to the United States during the period when it was pursuing the kind of maximum pressure policy and talking a lot about sanctions and aggression. Japan was never sort of – publicly, was agreeing, you know, lockstep with the Trump administration. So I think they were really caught off-guard. And so since then, they’ve been trying to figure out how to remain, on their face, as if they’re still 100 percent allies, Shinzo Abe is Donald Trump’s best friend, and yet figure out how to kind of navigate the delicacy of the U.S. having changed its policy.
And I’ve noticed in the last few days that – I mean, leaders have been out and about talking. For example, the foreign minister and the defense minister had meetings with their foreign and defense minister counterparts in Russia, mentioning that they still wanted to impose sanctions. There was also a discussion today at a meeting with countries from Southeast Asia where they encouraged the countries to continue to impose sanctions. So I think Japan is particularly worried that there will be a relaxation of the sanctions regime on North Korea before any concrete action is taken.
MR. SCHWARTZ: What occurred to me is, you know, Shinzo Abe might want to take his golf clubs back that he gave President Trump. I mean, not a very good friend. (Laughs.)
MS. RICH: I was writing about this earlier this year, sort of like, you know, poor Shinzo Abe is a little bit – like, you know, he thought he was in this great seat. He’d managed to become the president’s best buddy for a year. And for a while there, it seemed like the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, was sort of on the outside looking in. And then all of a sudden it became, you know, switched around. The points of the triangle switched around. And Moon Jae-in and the president were on the same page and Shinzo Abe was kind of on the outside looking in. He was a little bit like, you know, the guy trying to get in with the popular crowd in high school.
But in public, the Japanese government officials will never, ever criticize the U.S. government. They, you know, might gently suggest that they still believe in maximum pressure. They kind of stick to the party line that they have stuck to all along. But they have not criticized the administration and, in fact, have praised the summit and talked about it as a great meeting between the president and Kim Jong-un.
MR. CHA: Yeah, so if it wasn’t real politics, it would be a high school musical, this back and forth.
MS. RICH: Yes, indeed.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Sure.
MR. CHA: I mean, you know? I think Motoko is absolutely right. I mean, just picking up on one of the points she made about this – Prime Minister Abe’s feeling of being left out, you know, I think this centers on, like, a few things, right? The first of these is this – you know, this week we saw the United States receive POW/MIA remains from North Korea. The North and the South are talking about different forms of reconciliation. And for the – for Japan in particular, for Prime Minister Abe, this one issue of the unresolved abductions, these Japanese citizens who were abducted in – kidnapped in the 1970s. That issue has not been resolved. And it’s particularly important for Prime Minister Abe, because one could argue part of his career, his rise to power, was on this issue.
So there’s the abductions. The other is the delinking on the missile issue. I mean, we’re very concerned about the long-range ballistic missile threat from North Korea, as demonstrated by the Hwasong-15 missile that they flight tested last year. And for Japan, while those long-range missiles are a concern, the, you know, 300 or so deployed short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are an – they’re an extant threat to Japan. And so there’s a question there, right?
MS. RICH: Absolutely. I think on that point, I think one of Japan’s big fears is that the U.S. might do some kind of deal where they agree with North Korea that, OK, if you give up your ICBM program, give up a number of – a certain number of nuclear warheads, we’ll call it a day, which could potentially still leave North Korea with all the means to threaten Japan. And I think that’s a huge worry. And we’ve seen in recent months that they have pursued increased missile defense or buying Aegis Ashore systems from Lockheed Martin and the United States. So they really are acting as if they still consider North Korea to be a real threat.
MR. CHA: Right. And so a bad deal would be a nightmare for Japan. Like, a bad nuclear deal would be a nightmare. And then on top of a bad nuclear deal being a nightmare would be if Trump decided to agree to some sort of peace declaration ending the Korean War, when the threat clearly hasn’t dissipated for Japan, and North Korean attitudes towards Japan obviously still remain – still remain quite belligerent.
And, you know, I think – and maybe, Motoko, you were probably there – but when Prime Minister Abe met with President Trump in the runup to the Singapore summit, you know, I think he kept making all these points. And I remember one particular time in the first press spray before they were actually going into their meetings – you know, that first press spray is just an atmospheric thing. I’m going to go talk to my good buddy. We’re good friends. We’re good allies. Then they go in. And that’s what the president said.
And then Prime Minister Abe gave, like, a – I don’t know, it must have been like a 10-minute prepared set of remarks. And I think he mentioned the word sanctions like about 7 times in that thing, which speaks to Motoko’s point. The other thing the Japanese want to do is they want to keep pressing on the sanctions. And they’re worried that this diplomacy is going to eventually lead, if it has not already led, to the erosion of the sanctions that are really biting on North Korea.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, I wondered what the Japanese reaction would be along these lines to President Trump’s tweet last night, where he said – he thanked Chairman Kim Jong-un for keeping his word. He said: Thank you for your nice letter. I look forward to seeing you soon – which implies there’s going to be a second meeting soon. So not only might Japan be on the outside looking in, the Trump administration and President Trump himself seems to be buddying up with Kim Jong-un.
MR. CHA: I’m sorry to say, we’ve gotten used to this now.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
MR. CHA: I mean, President Trump basically trying to make policy through tweets, but then the rest of the government has to catch up to. Now they have to figure out, is there going to be a second meeting? Is it going to happen in New York on the sidelines of UNGA? You know, where is – you know, how are we supposed to plan this? I mean, it’s just –
MR. SCHWARTZ: Is he going to catch the Acela down from the UNGA to the White House? I mean –
MR. CHA: Yeah, yeah. And then it drives – I’m sure it drives people like Prime Minister Abe absolutely nuts when he sees things like this.
MR. SCHWARTZ: This was a late-night tweet last night.
MS. RICH: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I am sure there are people in the Japanese government who are – who’ve got the tweets on their phone alarms going off all nights and all mornings. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHWARTZ: I bet they did.
MS. RICH: I mean – (laughs) – including all of us in the media. I would say that when I talk to folks in the Japanese government, you know, behind the scenes, as well as long-term North Korea watchers here, there is this sort of line or narrative here that they emphasize very strongly, that I think is also shared by many in the U.S. policy community, which is: Here we go again. That we’ve been here before. We have tried to negotiate all of these issues with North Korea before, and they’ve gone back on their word.
And so there’s a lot of this sort of sense in Japan that they can’t really take seriously what is being said by the North Koreans because they’ve been here before. They’ve negotiated, not – you know, not directly with the current Mr. Kim, obviously, because the last time that a Japanese prime minister went to North Korea it was his father who was in charge. But they have met with many of the folks who are sitting on the other side of the table in these diplomatic negotiations, like Kim Yong-chol and a woman who used to be the –
MR. CHA: Yeah, Choi Sun-hee. Choi Sun-hee.
MS. RICH: Yeah. They’re very familiar with both of them. They’ve negotiated with them. They met with them during the six-party talks. So they sort of see this as all, you know, we don’t see this as anything new or any progress here. And I think there’s a little bit of frustration that the American administration doesn’t currently share their sense of history.
MR. CHA: I found that in the last couple weeks meeting with Japanese folks that there is – you know, of all the parties that are involved in this – you have the six parties, let’s say, you know, the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China. Of that whole group, the Japanese are by far the ones that are showing the most – maybe not publicly, as Motoko said, but certainly privately – the most impatience about where this diplomacy is going. You know, is it going anywhere?
If the South Koreans look at the five things that the North Koreans have done, you know, in terms of no more testing, decommissioning the nuclear site, decommissioning the satellite launch site, returning the remains, returning the hostages, they look – the South Koreans look at those five things and say those are confidence-building measures before the big core negotiation on denuclearization. The Japanese look at those five measures and say, it’s a delaying tactic. It’s an effort to distract, delay, you know, to give the president some things he can talk about in terms of success of his diplomacy. But it’s really aimed at distracting from the core issue, which is timeline, declaration, IAEA back into the country, all these sorts of things.
So I think that – you know, there is – I sense that there’s – I mean, I agree. It’s frustration, but it’s also sort of a lot of questions about, you know, is this really going to go anywhere? Shouldn’t we start – shouldn’t – I think if they had their choice, they would like to see a bottom-up reassessment by the United States at this point of where we are, you know, two months after the Singapore summit in terms of the core issue of denuclearization.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Well, not to mention also that U.S. intelligence officials said this week that North Korea has yet to stop production of ballistic missiles. And, you know, on top of all that, less than two months ago Donald Trump tweeted that there’s no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.
MS. RICH: I don’t think the Japanese agree with that for a minute.
MR. SCHWARTZ: I would think not. They’re a little closer to the nuclear threat.
MR. CHA: They would politely disagree, right? They would politely disagree with that assessment.
MS. RICH: Yes, indeed, very politely disagree, just so you might not even notice. But I completely agree with Victor, that they would like to see more of a bottom-up assessment. They want to see of a little more of the kind of brass tacks and get down into weeds a bit about how exactly is this going to work. I think when I talk to people here in the policy community, they would say we are not convinced that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. We don’t see that path right now.
And, although, as Victor rightly points out, though, here in Japan the issue of the abductees is an incredibly important politically to the Abe administration, but also emotionally to the Japanese public. It’s a very front and center issue. The families of the abductees are regularly in the news media. And when the government leaks that it’s interested or that it’s having backchannel talks with North Korean officials, it’s usually in relation to this abductee issue. And I think some analysts think that the Japanese government has put itself into a little bit of a bind, because until that issue is resolved, it makes it very difficult for the government to talk about anything else, because they’ve staked so much political capital on somehow resolving the abductee issue. That’s sort of the vocabulary that they use, the use the word resolve, rather than return or what have you.
So there’s sort of a question about what that would mean, but it would have to be some kind of one-on-one meeting between Japanese leadership and North Korean leadership for that particular issue to be resolved. Although, the president did say that he mentioned it in his private conversation with Kim Jong-un. You know, we don’t think that anybody else cares enough about the issue – or, the Japanese government doesn’t think that anyone – believe that anyone else cares enough about the issue to actually do anything about it. So it will have to be the Japanese government that goes and does something about it.
But one other interesting thing that I keep hearing – and, I don’t know, I’m curious, Victor, if you also hear this when you talk to folks in Japan – is this kind of sense that they will have some leverage down the line, because they have the economic backing or they could help North Korea develop economically. If in fact Kim Jong-un is sincere about wanting to pursue economic development now, in tandem with – now that he feels more confident about the nuclear development – then Japan says, you know, they’re going to have to turn to us because they’re going to need some of our money.
And in fact, Japan did pay reparations to South Korea for its occupation. And those – analysts often say, look, we still have a sort of pool of money that we could use as reparations to North Korea if they meet some of our criteria – i.e., resolve the abductee issue, but also make concrete steps toward denuclearization. We might be willing to normalize our diplomatic relations, but also help out economically. And so I think there’s sort of this hope almost that that leverage – that will give them some kind of leverage in future negotiations.
MR. CHA: Yeah, I mean, I think the formula that they – that had been talked about, at least by experts back when Prime Minister Koizumi did the Pyongyang Declaration, was that if there were ever normalization between these two countries, that at least the starting template would be that Japan would provide what as the equivalent of the 1965 normalization settlement with South Korea to North Korea, you know, in current dollars. That’s a lot of money. I mean, it was a lot of money then. It would be a lot of money now.
Whether that would actually happen, nobody knows. But I think Motoko’s right, I mean, this is something that the Japanese have sort of in their back pocket. And in every denuclearization deal we’ve done with North Korea, you know, Japan has been an integral part. They were an integral part of KEDO. They were one of the three founding members of the Korean Energy Development Organization, which implemented the ’94 agreement. And in the six-party talks, they were part – they were one of the countries that were supposed to be part of the energy assistance packages that were to go to North Korea while they kept these facilities frozen and eventually dismantled.
So I want to offer one other thing that I’ve heard, which I thought was actually quite interesting. I don’t know whether I believe it. I don’t know, Motoko, whether you would believe this. But some have said – a couple of things on the abductees. The first is that Prime Minister Abe has been very clear with President Trump about how important this issue is. But almost to the –
MS. RICH: Absolutely.
MR. CHA: Almost to the detriment of overall Japanese interest in this, because some are concerned that’s the only the president – that registered with President Trump. So that when he goes in, he thinks I got to keep Japanese equities in mind – abductees. And he just talks – he just mentions the abductees. He doesn’t mention short-range ballistic missiles, he doesn’t mention some of – some of the other things.
The other thing I’ve heard is that there’s some in Japan who are actually very comfortable with where we are on the abductions issue, contrary to what everybody thinks, because never before have they had both the South Korean president and the U.S. president directly say to the North Korean leader: You need to resolve this issue with Japan. And so, you know, the optimists argue that while we’re – this has not been resolved, we are at a better starting point on reopening this issue than we ever have been in the past, in terms of the negotiations.
So I don’t know. Motoko, I don’t know how you feel about that. But that was something that I heard that was a little bit different.
MS. RICH: Well, I would say I would absolutely agree with the sort of opening part of your remarks there, which is that they are happy that both the South Korean president and the U.S. president mentioned the abductees. And they sort of said: That’s all we want from both the inter-Korean summit and the Singapore summit for our part, is that’s what we want. Sort of in terms of the Japanese agenda, that’s what we want to be on the table. And I think that they would say, you know, obviously we support the notion that we want total, you know, complete – CVID, denuclearization. But sort of the single issue that’s most important to Japan is the abductees. So I think they were absolutely satisfied that the issue was at least raised in both contexts.
That being said, like you, Victor, I sort of wonder if it’s actually true that they feel like they’re in a better position than they’ve ever been. I mean, I think at the time that then-Prime Minister Koizumi went to Pyongyang, I think that’s when people really were quite hopeful. And in fact, five abductees did come home after that. So I would be surprised if people genuinely thought that things would be at – that they were at a better state of negotiation now, because other than mentioning it not much has been done about it.
MR. CHA: The other thing that I would say on CVID issue is that – and I think this is true – I mean, there’s so much diplomacy happening in the stratosphere right now among the leaders, though tweets and other things. And the focus on – like, nobody wants a bad deal, right? And so the best way to avert a bad deal is to really focus on verification standards. It’s one of the reasons why we at CSIS did that conference last week about verification . And if there’s one party that has been very stalwart behind the scenes on the verification issue, it has been Japan. That they – in fact, they have better conversations with U.S. counterparts on verification than the South Koreans do with the U.S. counterparts on verification.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Why is that?
MR. CHA: Well, I think it’s in part because Japan is coming with a very high standard and very high bar. And most people in the arms control and counterproliferation directorates at State and the NSC would agree – would entirely agree with that standard. Whereas from, I think, a South Korean perspective, it’s more political. It’s not sort of an absolute standard. It’s more political. It’s more this is a negotiation, we need to demonstrate flexibility, these sorts of things. So I think there’s a little bit of dissonance there when you look at it trilaterally. But on Japan, I think that they feel like they have had a good conversation with the United States on verification standards. But then, again, that’s a conversation that’s taking place at the expert level. But this actual – what’s happening in this – in this diplomacy negotiation is taking place at – in the stratosphere.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And the State Department’s still predicting – despite reports of new missiles – they’re still predicting that North Korea is headed towards denuclearization. Where does that come from?
MR. CHA: You know, I think that they’re doing their best to stay in line with the president. I think the president has been very positive about this, at least publicly, in everything that he’s said and everything that he’s tweeted. And they’re probably doing their best to stay in line with what their secretary’s objective is. And you know, I think often – (laughs) – and I remember this – often when there are difficulties in the negotiations, the standard public response is to say – is basically to reaffirm what our objective is, which is denuclearization, so people can say – you know, there’s imagery showing their refurbishing sites. They’re – you know, they’re creating fissile material. They’re building new missiles. And then the standard sort of talking point in response is: We remain committed to denuclearization. We have confidence that our objectives in denuclearization will remain the standard, you know.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Even though they’re still building missiles, we’re committed to – yeah.
MR. CHA: Even though they’re still building, we’re committed to – we are confident about what our objectives are. (Laughs.)
MR. SCHWARTZ: Right.
MS. RICH: Right. And the Japanese government is very – would react very similarly, that reiterating the goals rather than talking about the possible shortfalls in the implementation is a way to kind of stay on message.
MR. CHA: Motoko, there’s probably only one other – or one other country where this issue is as carefully covered by the media and watched by everybody, and that’s obviously South Korea. But in Japan, you could argue it’s even more covered in Japan than it is anywhere else. I mean, but at the general public level, do you feel that this has really captured the imagination or the attention of the general public, like it has in South Korea?
MS. RICH: No. I don’t think it would have – I would say that it’s captured the imagination like it has in South Korea, where there’s a much more kind of, you know, our country, potential reunification kind of romanticization, it seems, that is part of the attention. That being said, I mean, there were missiles flying over Hokkaido last year. So there was a sort of palpable sense of anxiety. I wouldn’t say it was outright fear yet, but there was definitely a palpable sense of anxiety here last year. And to the extent that that has retreated, I think there’s a bit of relief about that. And they’re certainly interested in what’s going to happen.
But I don’t think – you know, it’s been a while since I’ve been over to Seoul, but certainly in Tokyo there’s intense interest at the government level and bureaucracy level. And I think when you watch the news, there’s as much going on domestically here now that maybe the eyes have come off a little bit of the foreign policy. But certainly everybody was, you know, 100 percent interested in the summit. I mean, I think Japan sent one of the largest media contingents to the summit in Singapore. So they’re – certainly anytime anything happens at that stratospheric level they pay attention – the media pays attention here.
MR. SCHWARTZ: One thing we haven’t talked about yet is China. How does China figure into all this?
MS. RICH: Well, I think for Japan one of the things is that there is starting to be a sense that all the attention being paid to North Korea in the last year has mean that the Chinese have quietly been expanding their reach and their influence in the region, and there is an increasing amount of concern about that. So I think there’s much more talk about protecting, for example, the contested islands, the Senkakus, coordinating with the United States and India on – you know, there was a lot of talk about this so-called Indo-Pacific strategy to make sure that China doesn’t take over the South China Sea.
And that – I was talking to someone the other day about how in some ways North Korea is giving Japan an opportunity kind of militarily to build up its missile defenses. And they can say it’s about North Korea, but it’s sort of also about China. So for example, buying these Aegis Ashore, they’re saying they’re buying them because they want to protect against potential short- of medium-range missiles that could come over from North Korea. But I think what’s not said is that it also could provide protection from any aggression that they might fear coming from China.
MR. CHA: Yeah, I mean, I agree with that. I mean, the North Korea issue certainly has distracted everybody from the broader efforts by China, the sort of creeping hegemony that China has been implementing quite effectively with the allied building campaign and then also, the constant harassment in the East China Sea, right, with regard to Japan and the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. It – you know, on the one hand, it has taken a lot of focus, media focus, a lot of expert focus off the issue. But at the same time, it has provided Prime Minister Abe with the justification for really pushing forward with an agenda on the military side that is, you know, I think meant in the longer term to more normalize Japan as a military power.
Now, I don’t know, Motoko, on constitutional constraints and things. I don’t know what the kind of – what support there is now for constitutional revision. I mean, I sense that it was something that was on the agenda of Abe when he started. I don’t know whether it’s still a realistic possibility, even as they are uncertain of where the diplomacy is going. But, yes, I mean, short of that Prime Minister Abe has been able to do a lot on the defense side.
MS. RICH: Right. I mean, I think that he’s gone through enough sort of domestic scandal. And it seems like he’s put it behind him, and he actually is facing a leadership election next month for leadership of the LDP. And if he wins that, it basically means he will have three more years in office, which would make him the longest-serving prime minister in history – Japan’s history, which is certainly a record that he wants to set. In terms of constitutional reform, I think he will still try to push some form of it, but I don’t think it will be – I don’t think he will manage to completely overturn the pacifist clause in the constitution, which is what he set out to do. But I think he might well figure out a way to modify it.
And meanwhile, having rammed through security laws in 2015 that allow the country to do a lot more militarily to kind of join in protection of the country and the region, and protection of its allies, I think they are building up their military. I mean, I think it’s really hard to look at Japan from a practical level and say: This is a completely pacifist country. I mean, it has a fairly large standing army and lots of equipment. And, like I said, they’re buying Aegis Ashore. And they want to buy more fighter jets. And so I think there is this sense of sort of pushing, nudging steadily forward toward, as Prime Minister Abe has described it, making Japan a more, quote-unquote, “normal,” country.
But, yes, there is this definite effort to militarize the country. Not because – you know, I should happen to add that those that would say that Japan is doing this because they suddenly have these, you know, reigniting imperialist ambitions, I don’t think that’s true at all. But they definitely want – the Abe administration definitely wants to have more military power for the country.
MR. CHA: So what do you think the chances are in this election? I mean, does he have a pretty good chance?
MS. RICH: Yeah. No, it’s interesting. If you’d asked me three months ago, I would have said, wow, it looks like he – you know, his chances are very perilous and that the domestic scandal – there were a couple of influence-peddling scandals that were really dogging him for over a year. And it seems like they were about to really threaten to topple him. But he seems to kind of – you know, over the summer things have calmed down and, you know, tensions shifted to North Korea for a while and other issues.
And then there’s been these – there were these devastating floods in the west of Japan, and the heatwave. And he’s trying to show that he’s being – you know, a true leader and handling these issues. And it doesn’t appear that there’s any viable opposition, which is the most important reason why it appears that he is probably going to win this leadership election. There’s always a chance that, you know, politics – like they say, a week is a long time in politics, even in Japan. So things could change, but the pundits are now saying they think it’s very likely that he’ll be reelected.
MR. CHA: It’s an amazing story. I mean, I remember – I was in government in 2006 when he was last prime minister. And it was about – I mean, it was about the most difficult prime minister’s short term in office that I have, you know, ever seen. But you remember, they had the big – the postal savings scandal. And then he was ill. And there were just all these things. And I remember, when he resigned back then, a lot of people thought he was done – just completely done. It’s just an amazing comeback. Just astounding.
MS. RICH: And a lot of it has to do with the lack of opposition. I mean, on the one hand he’s been – he’s, you know, an incredibly shrewd politician. But on the other hand, there just hasn’t been anyone – not only from opposition parties, but from within his own party, to credibly challenge him. And some of that may be due to the fact that he and his allies in the party have successfully managed to undermine any potential opposition. But so a lot of times when there are polls taken, it’s not as if people are overwhelmingly supportive of Abe. It’s more that they can’t think of anybody else they’d want to do the job.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So it sounds like there’s going to be a lot more golfing trips between Prime Minister Abe and President Trump to come. (Laughter.)
MS. RICH: Yes. You know, nobody wants to say for sure. I mean, if I talk to anybody in government right now, they very, you know, huffily point out that there is an election coming up in September, and there are no guarantees. But it feels like there may be some people already counting their chickens.
MR. CHA: Yeah, I hear golf in the fall in Florida is still very nice.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Oh, yeah.
MR. CHA: So we – (laughter) – so we could be seeing a lot more –
MS. RICH: See you around Florida, I think.
MR. CHA: Right.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Right. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHWARTZ: If you have a question for one of our experts about The Impossible State, email us at email@example.com.
If you want to dive deeper into the issues surrounding North Korea, check out Beyond Parallel. That’s our micro website that’s dedicated to bringing a better understanding of the Korean Peninsula. You can find it at beyondparallel.csis.org.
And don’t forget to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s so more listeners can find us. It’s very helpful.
And don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
This is The Impossible State.