Japan and North Korea: Time to talk?

Apr 30, 2024
North Korea and Japan flags together textile cloth, fabric texture

In Northeast Asia a system of confronting military alliances – US/Japan/South Korea/Philippines vs China/Russia/North Korea – gradually takes shape, calling to mind nothing so much as the alliance system constructed in Europe in the decade leading up to 1914. The one today is no more likely to lead to peace and regional cooperation than was the other 110 years ago.

The confrontation between Japan and North Korea is rooted in the contradictions of Japanese colonialism in the first half of the 20th century and the Cold War East-West bloc contradictions of the second half. Relations between Japan and all its neighbours, rooted in one or both of these eras, were normalised, mostly long ago. Only between Japan and its nearest neighbour, North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK), has there been no normalisation. Negotiations that began in 1990, as the Cold War was being wound up elsewhere, and resumed sporadically over 34 years since then, remain without resolution.

The perception of North Korea a “threat” serves to justify the paradox of Japan as economic superpower but political client state, dependent on the US. But the abnormality of the present confrontation cannot last forever.

In 2002, to widespread astonishment on all sides Japan’s Koizumi Junichiro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il apologised to each other, the one for fifty years of colonial rule and post-colonial hostility, the other for the abduction of thirteen Japanese citizens carried out at the very nadir of their relationship in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, despite mutual pledges to work towards normalising and stabilising their relationship, “normalisation” did not follow.

Gregory Clark recently drew attention on this site to the manipulation of the abduction issue by Japanese rightists determined to block the 2002 agreement (“Japan’s abduction myths have kept a nation in poverty for decades,” April 12), and to the key role in this process played by Abe Shinzo, deputy cabinet secretary in 2002 and subsequently Prime Minister over several terms (2006-7, 2012-20). Abe, who visited Pyongyang in Prime Minister Koizumi’s 2002 delegation, no sooner returned to Japan than he began to organise to oppose the Pyongyang Declaration and subvert the reconciliation process.

When North Korea implemented what it understood to be its commitment under the 2002 agreement by returning five abductees, insisting eight others on Japan’s lists of the missing had died, Japan under Abe countered by insisting the eight, and possibly many more besides, must be still alive and must be returned. There can be little prospect of agreement between parties when one insists eight people have died and the other says “return them all at once, alive.”

Under Abe, a government-directed Abduction Special Measures Headquarters was set up, a national and even global campaign to expose North Korea’s abuses of human rights was launched, and, in due course following North Korean missile and nuclear tests, trade was halted, north Korean shipping banned from Japanese ports, North Korean-affiliated residents and organisations in Japan subjected to various forms of discrimination, and North Korean schools in Japan exempted from otherwise comprehensive free text provision. Confrontation between a rapidly re-militarising Japan and a nuclear-armed North Korea intensified.

Japanese policy under Abe Shinzo rested on three principles:

1. the abduction problem is the biggest problem Japan faces,

2. without resolution of the abduction problem there can be no normalisation of relations with North Korea,

3. all the abductees (of whom here are an indeterminate number possibly in the hundreds) are still alive and must be returned.

At Stockholm in 2014, North Korea presented an interim report into the missing abductees (including the problematic eight), but the Abe Shinzo government rejected it. The re-investigation stalled, relations lapsing into deep freeze.

With Abe himself rudely removed from the scene by an assassin’s bullet in 2022, his successors, including present Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, continued to declare their commitment on the one hand to his three-principles but on the other to eventual normalisation. The three Abe principles confront the Koizumi principles of the Pyongyang Declaration. From beyond the grave, Abe’s ghost wielded its considerable influence to block resolution.

A fuller explication of this complex but crucial process is accessible through the translated (by this author) analyses by Tokyo University emeritus professor (and prolific author) Wada Haruki. See most recently Wada’s “Normalisation of relations between Japan and North Korea,” The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus, 24 November 2013.

Wada insists that, even as war clouds develop around the East and South China Seas, the die is not yet cast and war can still be avoided provided, however, a peace and cooperation diplomacy prevails. Nothing is more important, he insists, than the opening of diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea. He proposes eight steps towards normalisation. Of the eight, first is the most difficult: that Japan announce that it no longer adheres to the Abe Principles.

From at least May 2023, as Wada notes, Kishida declared that he was intent on “a comprehensive resolution of the abduction, missile and other matters” and a “normalising” of relations.

“I am personally committed to direct high-level negotiations to this effect and will neglect no opportunity to convey my resolve to Kim Jong-un and to realise a summit talk with him.”

Again, early in 2024, Kishida reiterated his readiness to negotiate without pre-conditions and referred to “various concrete efforts” his government was taking. A Prime Ministerial Pyongyang visit, perhaps in June, was reportedly under consideration. On 25 March, North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong, sister and presumptive heir to current leader Kim Jong Un, spoke of the possibility of the two countries opening a new future, provided only that “Japan makes a political decision:”

“If Japan drops its bad habit of unreasonably pulling up the DPRK over its legitimate right to self-defence and does not lay such a stumbling block as the already settled abduction issue in the future way for mending the bilateral relations, there will be no reason for the two countries not to become close.”

She meant, of course, that Japan would have to set aside the Abe principles. For Kishida, despite his declaration of commitment to talks without pre-conditions, that might be a bridge too far.

In North Korea it can be taken for granted that the “normalcy” that was almost but not quite accomplished in 2002 is still very much to be desired, not only for the relief it could be expected to bring from sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and US-led military (including nuclear) intimidation but also, in due course, for the financial and economic cooperation package of compensation for the half century of colonialism that could be anticipated to follow.

But for Japan the situation is complex. Shadows of corruption and influence peddling swirl ever thicker around the Kishida government and the ruling LDP party. Polls show catastrophic collapse in their support level (to an almost unprecedented 14 per cent level in a Mainichi poll in February). To return to the realism of Koizumi Junichiro under whom the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration deal had been cut, the Three Abe principles will first have to be revoked. For the Kishida government to take such bold step, reversing 23 yeas of Abe-led intransigence, would call for political courage of higher order than he has so far evinced

The abduction of a dozen or so Japanese citizens by North Korea almost 50 years ago, to which North Korea admitted and for which it apologised twenty-two years ago, remains key to resolving the military confrontation and insecurity across today’s East Asia. It is surely time, after more than a century of colonialism, war, and hostile confrontation, for relations between Japan and its nearest neighbour to be normalised. If that could be accomplished, it would open the door towards Korean peninsular reconciliation and possible reunification and towards comprehensive revamping of Japan’s regional posture.


P.s. In retrospect, it is hard now, on 27 April 2024, to recall the atmosphere of 27 April 2018, just six years ago. On that day, the leaders of South and North Korea, Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, embraced each other smiling in the spring sun as they stepped insouciantly across the division line between their nominally hostile states. Months later, in September, South Korean president Moon addressed a mass rally of an estimated 150,000 people at May Day Stadium in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and was acclaimed for his reference to “a future of common prosperity.”

Much has changed since 2018 but the present confrontation too will not last forever. It is hard to imagine any Japanese Prime Minister ever being acclaimed by North Korean citizens as was South Korea’s President Moon in 2018, but some such day must one day come and the achievement of such a breakthrough will rank comparably high in historic significance.

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