Putin is meeting with Kim, and Abe is meeting with Trump. But nobody’s quite sure who’s influencing whom.
First Donald Trump walked away from a second round of nuclear talks with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. Now all the traditional powers of northeast Asia—China, Japan, Russia, South Korea—are muscling in to try to assert themselves as more than peripheral actors in this drama.
This week alone, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Kim for the first time in the Russian city of Vladivostok and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Trump at the White House, advocating polar opposite agendas for how to proceed in addressing the North Korean nuclear program.
Neither Putin nor Abe has the clout to single-handedly sway Kim or Trump one way or another, but their renewed involvement points to a new (and yet old) dynamic in the negotiations, which will only further complicate a stalled diplomatic process. As Trump’s former national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, liked to say, geopolitics are back with a vengeance.
Perhaps more than any other world leader, Japan’s prime minister has sought to advance his nation’s interests by nurturing a personal friendship with America’s volatile, nationalist, and thoroughly transactional president.
Meeting in the Oval Office on Friday, Trump provided a glimpse into how Abe manages to get through to him. Trump said he wasn’t sure about visiting Japan next month to witness the ascension of a new emperor, but was persuaded when the prime minister told him that for the Japanese the event was “100 times bigger” than the Super Bowl.
Abe jetted to New York right after the 2016 election to become the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect, plied Trump with fancy gold golf clubsand “Make Alliance Even Greater” hats, and wrote what Trump has describedas “the most beautiful” letter nominating the president for a Nobel Peace Prize on account of his outreach to North Korea. The Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., which keeps track of such things, notes that with 29 phone calls and 10 in-person meetings, Trump has met and talked with Abe more times than any other leader. True to form, this week Abe will golf and celebrate Melania Trump’s birthday with the president.
Whether this studied, strategic courtship of Trump has proved a wise bet is debatable—not just on trade, where being the president’s best friend hasn’t insulated Abe from Trump’s tariffs and insistence on negotiating a new bilateral trade deal that Japan isn’t interested in, but also on North Korea. (In one indication of the unspoken tensions in the leaders’ relationship, a Trump-administration official briefing reporters ahead of Abe’s arrival spent only four minutes previewing the visit and took no questions.)