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So, Japanese-North Korean relations are coming to some kind of crescendo leaving a number of questions in its wake, but first, an overview:

The other side also indicated the notion that there is a need to move forward. We will hold deeper exchanges of views over a longer period next week

– Saiki Akitaka Director-General Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau MOFA (Sunday, June 8, 2008)

If our counterpart makes a significant step forward and takes concrete action, then we, too, will take a big step in response. If it is a small step, ours will also be small. The other side has first to carry out what it should do, and we will evaluate that to see what kind of action is deemed appropriate on our side.

– Komura Masahiko Foreign Minister (Wednesday, June 11, 2008)

We had in-depth exchanges (Thursday) on issues including the abduction problem.

-Saiki Akitaka (Friday, June 13, 2008)

Pyongyang has promised to reopen its investigation into the missing Japanese its spies abducted, and Tokyo will partially lift economic sanctions in response.

The announcement was made Friday by Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, who said, however, that Pyongyang’s new promise is “a small step” and Tokyo will only lift the ban on chartered flights and trips between the two countries, including port calls by ships carrying humanitarian aid from private entities. The North is also willing to hand over one of the four surviving Japanese leftist radicals who hijacked a Japan Airlines jet to Pyongyang in 1970 and two of the radicals’ wives.

– The Japan Times (Saturday, June 14, 2008)

Tobias Harris discusses how this will cause fallout in the Diet, particularly in the context of US-North Korea negotiations.

Even would-be defenders of the move are skeptical. Yamamoto Ichita, a member of the association to promote the prudent advance of North Korean diplomacy, a Diet members’ league that has called for an approach to North Korea that uses both pressure and negotiation with North Korea (as opposed to just pressure), expressed fears that the US will use the new agreement to claim that Japan and North Korea are making progress, thereby enabling the US to remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list. […]

But it is revealing that even a natural defender of the government’s use of diplomacy to extract concessions from Pyongyang has greeted Friday’s announcement with skepticism for reasons having less to do with North Korea than with the US. The damage of Mr. Abe’s year in office, during which the US and Japan went opposite directions on North Korea without bothering to discuss it openly and frankly. Japanese have some right to be distrustful of the US — but at the same time, it was wrong for Japanese to think that there would be no consequences from the Abe cabinet’s hard line on North Korea. It is time to repair the damage; Friday’s announcement is a good start. After isolating itself from the other five, Japan is at the very least rejoining the process.

When you add Okamura Jun’s comments below, it seems like it was an inevitable result of Japan getting left behind in the Six-Party Talks.

Thus, the more nationalistic/hawkish elements of the media will blast Mr. Fukuda for making the deal—Sankei has already come out strongly against easing the sanctions. But there was no viable alternative. There is no way that an LDP Prime Minister, whatever his personal inclinations may be, could hope to stand in the way of a nuclear programs deal that the U.S. government is determined to push through without losing face, or worse, just possibly throw the whole process off track by giving a somewhat implausible Congressional coalition of human rights advocates and national security hawks ammunition to cut down the main track agreement on North Korea’s nuclear program. The abductees issue has existed only between the lines in the agreement under the Six-Party Talks. There is no way that the Bush administration, or any U.S. administration for that matter, would allow it to take a front seat to the main issue.

If anything, Japan is going through the motion. It is a concession of its lack of influence within the Six-Party Talks which are, if anything, just dressing for US-North Korea negotiations. The power and influence lies within those two poles. The US move towards de-listing North Korea from the list of state-sponsors of terrorism has paid lip service to Japan’s concerns over the abduction issue, but highlighting the worries of being left behind, the Kazokukai were urging the US to consider the abduction issue before de-listing as this most recent phase of abduction fever kicked up.

With the possibility of shedding the excesses of Abe’s handling of the abduction issue, it is possible that Japan can scratch back some meaningful role from the dust that has covered its seat in Beijing. One question remains: at what cost? We’ll have to wait for this to play out before we can truly tell.

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2 Comments

  1. Jun Okamura makes sense. And you’re right. The six-party talks is largely about the United States and North Korea. Japan seems to be merely in the periphery.

    But I think the US and the other parties have valid reasons in refusing to put much weight on the abduction issue. It is, afterall, a bilateral problem that doesn’t affect regional security significantly. For Japan to selfishly insist on stalling the “progress” of the talks by continuing on its hawkish stand, the welfare of the region and Japan’s standing are compromised. Therefore I agree that Fukuda had little choice but to go with the flow of the six-party talks.

    The question now is, would the removal of Pyongyang from state terrorist sponsor list do anything good? From where I look at it, it seems that concessions make Kim Jong-il stronger and more defiant. They don’t make him behave nor make good on his promises.

    But still, de-escalating of tensions between Pyongang and Tokyo, I think, is generally good for the region.

  2. The question now is, would the removal of Pyongyang from state terrorist sponsor list do anything good? From where I look at it, it seems that concessions make Kim Jong-il stronger and more defiant. They don’t make him behave nor make good on his promises.

    Therein lies the balance. The US can only hold out the stick for so long, they need to use the carrot to draw the DPRK along. At some point, in order to keep the momentum, that carrot has to be relinquished.


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