Polls show Japanese public ambivalent about resolving issues with North Korea but supportive of diplomacy

Tobias Harris
July 11, 2018

When United States President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on 12 June, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Japanese people watched warily to see whether the U.S. president would safeguard Japan’s interests vis-à-vis its adversary on the Korean peninsula. After all, during the three months between Trump surprising the world by accepting Kim’s invitation to meet and the summit, Abe spoke with Trump on the phone several times and traveled to the U.S. twice to consult with the president about the summit and seek assurances that he would keep Japan’s concerns about North Korea – not only the unresolved issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens but also its chemical and biological weapons, its nuclear weapons, and its short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles – in mind when he met Kim.

Meanwhile, as the summit approached the Japanese public struggled to make sense of what it would mean and what impact it would have on Japan’s security. Polling conducted before the summit showed a high degree of variability and seems to have been highly sensitive to wording, sample sizes, and polling house biases. For example, a Yomiuri Shimbun poll conducted 18-20 May found a high degree of optimism about the summit: 66% believed it would result in the resolution of the nuclear weapons and missile issues, while another 60% believed that it would result in the resolution of the abductee issue. However, an Asahi Shimbun poll conducted at virtually the same time (19-20 May) found that only 31% (3% highly optimistic, 28% to some extent optimistic) believed that the summit would result in the resolution of the nuclear and missile issues, while 67% were not really (47%) or not at all (20%) optimistic. An NHK poll conducted on 8-10 June, just before the summit, showed even greater pessimism. NHK found that only 9% thought that an agreement for complete denuclearization could be reached, while 43% did not think so; 37% could not say. Similarly, 18% thought that the summit would result in progress on the abductee issue, 43% did not, and 29% could not say. In short, as the summit approached, the Japanese public was not necessarily opposed to the meeting between the U.S. president and North Korean leader, but was ambivalent about what would result.

Polls conducted since the summit suggest that the Japanese public’s ambivalence has only deepened since the Singapore summit. The public appears to be generally satisfied that the summit occurred: while the Yomiuri Shimbun’s 15-17 June poll found that only 43% approved of the summit, while 47% disapproved, the 16-17 June Asahi Shimbun poll, which had a sample size nearly twice the size of the Yomiuri poll’s, found that 73% approved of the summit’s being held, while only 19% disapproved. The Nikkei Shimbun’s poll, conducted 22-24 June, had the smallest sample of the three polls but found that 55% approved of the results of the summit, while 35% disapproved. Overall, the public is at worst divided on the value of the summit, and it is likely that a majority approves of the historic first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

It is likely that a majority approves of the historic first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

However, at the same time, the Japanese public’s skepticism about the U.S. diplomatic effort has grown following the summit. For example, in the Kyodo News poll conducted 16-17 June, 77.6% said that they do not think that complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can be realized; only 16.4% said that it can. Other polls show deep pessimism about the prospects for eliminating the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In Asahi, only 26% were optimistic about North Korea’s abandoning its nuclear weapons, 66% were not; in Yomiuri, only 24% thought that nuclear weapons and ballistic missile issues could be resolved, 64% did not; and in the Mainichi Shimbun’s 23-24 June poll, only 15% said they thought the nuclear and missile issues could be resolved, compared with 70% who did not think they could be resolved. In NHK’s latest poll, conducted 6-8 July, the public may be even more pessimistic nearly a month after the summit, with only 12% saying that they thought that the denuclearization of North Korea would advance following the summit, and 55% saying that they thought it would not advance (25% said they could not say).

The public may be more divided when it comes to resolving the abductee issue between Japan and North Korea. For example, the overlapping Yomiuri and Asahi polls found conflicting results: Yomiuri found that only 19% think the abductee issue can be resolved, compared with 73% who do not, while Asahi found that 40% are optimistic about Abe’s ability to resolve the issue, compared with 51% who are not. Asahi’s poll may be an outlier, however, since other polls found considerable pessimism. In Mainichi, only 18% thought the issue could be resolved, while 66% did not. In Nikkei, 32% are optimistic that the Abe government can resolve it, but 60% are not. Finally, in last weekend’s NHK poll, only 14% think that efforts to resolve the abductee issue will move forward, but 43% do not and 33% cannot say.

But despite widespread pessimism regarding the likelihood of resolving any of the three issues standing in the way of better relations between Japan and North Korea, post-summit polls are resolutely in favor of Abe’s own efforts to convene a summit with Kim. In Kyodo’s poll, 81.4% said that Abe should meet with Kim in a bid to resolve the abductee issue; in Asahi, 67% said that Abe should meet with Kim as soon as possible, compared with 26% who said that it is not necessary to rush; in Nikkei, 60% said an Abe-Kim summit should be convened as soon as possible, while 33% said that it is not necessary to rush.

Undergirding these findings was a shift in attitude towards the value of diplomacy versus pressure in attempting to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula. The Yomiuri Shimbun has regularly asked respondents whether they think that pressure or dialogue should be emphasized in dealing with North Korea. In January, respondents favored pressure over dialogue by a 50% to 40% margin. In March, in a poll conducted immediately after the U.S.-North Korea summit was announced, the public was evenly divided, with 42% favoring dialogue and 43% favoring pressure, a division that would continue in several subsequent polls. However, in May, Yomiuri found that 48% favored dialogue and 41% favored pressure; in June, this balance would widen further, with 48% still in favor of dialogue but only 39% in favor of pressure (13% did not respond).

The public believes that it is necessary for Abe to participate in the broader regional effort to forge new ties with Pyongyang.

The upshot is that despite doubts about Japan’s ability to resolve its main issues with North Korea, the public believes that it is necessary for Abe to participate in the broader regional effort to forge new ties with Pyongyang, perhaps as much to avoid Japan’s exclusion from a settlement as to deliver the best possible settlement for Japan. While Abe may be constrained by his own history as an advocate for the families of Japan’s abductees and his conservative base’s interest in resolving the issue – and North Korea does not seem particularly eager to conduct diplomacy with Abe – the Japanese public’s realism may work in Abe’s favor as he pivots away from “maximum pressure” and seeks his own summit with Kim.

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