Pyongyang’s New Overtures and Abe’s Diplomacy

Recent meetings between Japan and North Korea have prompted concern about whether Prime Minister Abe may be departing from the US and South Korea in its dealings with Pyongyang. Japanese and North Korean officials met on March 30-31, 2014 in Shenyang, China, and again on May 26-28 in Stockholm, Sweden. On May 29, Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced that Pyongyang had agreed to reopen its investigation into the whereabouts of the remaining Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by the North Korean government.

In return, the Japanese government will relax minor sanctions imposed unilaterally during Abe’s last tenure as prime minister. Tokyo refused to consider Pyongyang’s request to block the sale of the building and the land that had housed the General Association of Korean Residents (Chongryon), the de facto liaison office for North Korea. The North Korean envoy at the talks, Song Il Ho, however, argued otherwise.

This reinvigoration of political contacts is widely attributed to Abe Shinzo’s return to power, and interpreted as an effort at independent Japanese diplomacy. Bilateral talks had stalled since November 2012, although some interactions with Pyongyang by the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups resulted in visits to the burial sites of Japanese who died on the Korean peninsula in World War II.

The deal announced Thursday by Cabinet Secretary Suga, however, suggests a much more limited scope of interaction, and one that largely focuses on the issue closest to Abe’s (and the Japanese public’s) heart—the fate of the remaining Japanese abductees. Rather than an attempt to undermine collective diplomatic action on North Korea, this was clearly an opportunity presented by the Kim Jong Un government to use humanitarian concerns to engage Tokyo, in much the same way that it has used the cross-border family visits to engage with Seoul. The reward from Japan for this agreement is nominal, and does not affect Japan’s compliance with UN-mandated sanctions on North Korean proliferation.

A Koizumi 2.0?

Another round of comprehensive talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang, like those undertaken by Koizumi more than a decade ago, are highly unlikely. Prime Minister Koizumi visited Pyongyang twice, once in 2002 and again in 2004. In 2002, Koizumi and Kim Jong Il issued the Pyongyang Declaration, which included a moratorium on missile testing by North Korea in return for Japanese economic assistance, including humanitarian aid. At the time, a secret back-channel negotiation was credited with gaining access to Japanese citizens long thought to have been abducted by North Korean agents during Kim’s father’s regime. Kim Jong Il openly acknowledged for the first time that this program of abductions existed for the purpose of training agents in Japanese language and customs so that they could infiltrate Japan.

As a result of Koizumi’s breakthrough, five abductees living in North Korea returned home in 2002, and in 2004, their family members joined them. But the shock of Kim Jong Il’s revelation and the public anger over the government’s inability to gain access to information about the 12 other kidnapped Japanese, in the end, eroded Japanese public support for diplomacy with the Kim regime.

In the decade and a half since the Pyongyang Declaration, domestic advocacy on the abductee issue in Japan has driven its thinking about North Korea. The Japanese government identified 17 of its citizens as abductees, so the fate of the 12 Japanese citizens unaccounted for has been a serious stumbling block in bilateral talks. Kim Jong Il’s government declared that some had died, providing the remains of some of the deceased, or claimed that there was no evidence they had entered the country.

Tokyo challenged North Korea on the DNA and other evidence provided to back up their assertion, and has long demanded that Pyongyang reopen the investigation. Pyongyang’s inability to provide persuasive data on the remaining abductees since has confounded bilateral diplomacy. Since Koizumi left office, Tokyo has focused its efforts on consultations with South Korea and other governments, including discussions on the status of Japanese abductees and sharing of information obtained by defectors from the North. In 2010, Kim Hyon Hui—a former North Korean spy responsible for carrying out the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987—visited Japan to talk with the abductee families to share information on those Japanese she had contact with in Pyongyang, meeting at the private retreat of former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio.

The Abductee Families and Humanitarian Diplomacy

As chief cabinet secretary under Koizumi, Abe became a strong advocate for the abductee families, and gained political momentum as a consequence. Successive Japanese leaders, however, exercised care on the abductee issue. Several years ago,  a less ambitious set of contacts involving the Red Cross and other nongovernmental groups paved the way for today’s official dialogue. Their initial purpose was to gain access for relatives to burial sites in North Korea for Japanese who died in World War II. Several visits were authorized to these sites, and while Japanese officials tagged along, there was no pretense of official negotiations. Rather, they were portrayed as humanitarian missions.

The Abe cabinet began to explore this avenue for dialogue early on, and Abe’s political advisor, Iijima Isao, traveled to Pyongyang to explain the position of the Abe cabinet on the abductees and their families. Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of this humanitarian diplomacy was the meeting between the parents of Yokota Megumi and their 26-year-old granddaughter, Kim Eun Gyong, in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. While the Kim Jong Il regime had insisted that Megumi died in 1994 and provided her remains for analysis, Japanese DNA testing revealed that these remains were from multiple individuals and not Megumi. Her fate became a national cause; her aging parents spoke out repeatedly that they needed to know what happened to their daughter.

Prime Minister Abe has met frequently with the abductee families since returning to office, as well as with the Yokota’s prior to their departure. Japanese media reported that Megumi’s parents welcomed the chance to meet their granddaughter. Afterwards, Yokota Shigeru, Megumi’s father, said the couple’s “long-cherished dream had come true,” having finally had the chance to meet their granddaughter in person after years of seeing her on television.

This encounter, however, will not change the fact that the Abe cabinet, like others before it, will continue to face pressure from within Japan over their ability to produce results. The advocacy of the abductee families remains powerful, and their call for stronger governmental pressure on North Korea has a receptive ear in the prime minister. The nature of the North Korean regime, as documented recently in the Commission of Inquiry Report, only makes the question of what happened to their family members more acute. It also realizes what many in Japan have long wanted—a collective global effort to take action against North Korea for the violations of human rights.

Abe’s Limits

Prime Minister Abe’s identity as an advocate for the abductee families will help as he navigates the difficulties of engaging Pyongyang. But the constellation of support for a new North Korea initiative, both at home and abroad, is far different than it was in 2002 when Prime Minister Koizumi made his historic visit to Pyongyang. Indeed, even Koizumi noted publicly on the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s death that he felt the opportunity for the implementation of the Pyongyang Declaration had died with him.

Japan’s options in its diplomacy with North Korea remain limited, and while Abe’s bilateral agreement should be welcomed, it should also be viewed realistically. Abe will be constrained by the same factors that constrained his predecessors, and he is unlikely to deviate from Japan’s collaboration with Washington and Seoul.

North Korea’s motives should also be carefully scrutinized: Kim Jong Un is far more isolated today than his father was in 2002, and it is possible that this overture to Japan is no more than an effort to break out of isolation. Tokyo will need to take care that it is not manipulated by a young man determined to denigrate the current leader in Seoul and kept at arm’s length by the one leader whose support he needs the most, Xi Jinping.

Even though North Korea has agreed to reopen the investigation into the whereabouts of the abductees, it is also too early to tell whether Pyongyang has anything more  to offer in the way of evidence. Kim Jong Il’s willingness to acknowledge that abductees were still living in North Korea was the basis of Koizumi’s breakthrough. But Pyongyang’s inability—or unwillingness—to provide access to all of the abductees or reliable information on those it claimed were dead ultimately undermined its success. Even if irrefutable evidence of their deaths is available, it may not change Japanese public opinion, although it may give the families some closure. Furthermore, there are a number of individuals on the Japanese list that Pyongyang claims never entered North Korea. Their whereabouts and information on their lives are unknown.

The political flexibility Koizumi had more than a decade ago no longer exists in Tokyo. The Japanese government, and successive LDP leaders, all had a relatively free rein for trying to entice North Korean cooperation with economic reward for normalization—long the Japanese trump card in its deliberations with North Korea. The revelation that the Kim regime had indeed kidnapped Japanese citizens, frightened and angered most of the public. The idea of rewarding the Kim regime with financial assistance now sticks in the craw of most Japanese.

Moreover, there is no longer a divergence of strategic priorities between Tokyo and Washington in dealing with Pyongyang. A decade or more ago, Tokyo had focused on the DPRK missile threat while Washington was more concerned with fissile material falling into the hands of terrorists in the aftermath of September 11. North Korean behavior since, however, has put Tokyo, Washington, and Seoul largely on the same footing when it comes to identifying the means by which Pyongyang can pose a military threat to the region. Repeated tests of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, coupled with three successive nuclear tests, have produced a collective appreciation for the implications of North Korean proliferation. North Korea’s willingness to use force against the South with lethal intent in provocations launched in 2010 has heightened appreciation for the potential conventional military threat in Seoul and Tokyo, stimulating revisions in defense planning in both capitals to deal with the danger. In short, there may be differences in emphasis between the three capitals, but not a different level of awareness about where and how the threat of force might be used against the United States and each of its allies.

The diplomatic consequences for Japan of going it alone at the moment cannot be underestimated: Kim Jong Un’s threat to conduct yet another nuclear test has put the region on alert with even China publicly admonishing the North. Beijing has renewed its advocacy of a Six Party regional approach, in part because it believes that talking with the North is better than silence. But Tokyo has always been discomforted by Beijing’s role in the Six Party Talks, and given China’s recent diplomatic tensions with Japan, it is unlikely to embrace a regional security dialogue led by China. Reinvigorating the US-ROK-Japan Trilateral discussions, therefore, remains Tokyo’s best option. The trilateral summit meeting at The Hague was widely conceived as a mediation effort, but it also had the plain and simple purpose of refocusing trilateral attention on the need for cooperation and alliance learning on how best to cope with today’s Pyongyang.

Tokyo has strong strategic concerns as a result of Pyongyang’s progress in developing WMD. This agreement on investigating the fate of the abductees will not be sufficient to compromise its longer term strategic concerns. The missile threat continues to be a high priority for Japan, and Pyongyang shows no signs of relenting. Recent North Korean Nodong missile launches show that Kim Jong Un is quite willing to use his military arsenal when it suits his purpose. Timed as they were to precisely coincide with the trilateral summit between Prime Minister Abe, President Park and President Obama at The Hague, these provocations are clearly designed to undermine the political cooperation among North Korea’s neighbors. Today, with the successful launch of the Unha space launch vehicle (SLV) in 2013, North Korea has demonstrated its intention to develop a delivery system able to reach the United States. Thus, there is also the worry that North Korea’s ultimate ambition is to delink Japan from the extended deterrent that has long been at the core of the US-Japan alliance.

No Room for a Grand Bargain

The fate of the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea remains a top priority for the government, and the Abe cabinet has made that clear. Signs of movement were unmistakable, and as early as late March, Abe’s assertion that his government would be willing to relax sanctions if the Kim regime is forthcoming on the outstanding cases of Japanese abductees suggested the possibility that some sort of deal was in the making. In the Japanese parliament, Abe promised a “whole of government” approach on the abductee issue. Repeated meetings with the abductee families and the Iijima channel demonstrate that Prime Minister Abe is intent on a conversation with Pyongyang about the fate of the abductees.

Today, the contours of Abe’s deal are now visible. Pyongyang’s pledge to re-open the investigation into the fate of the remaining abductees has led Tokyo to ease some of the more minor transactions between the North and Japan, such as raising the limits on reporting of cash remittances from family members and allowing more North Koreans to visit Japan. However, a repeat of the high level diplomacy undertaken by Koizumi, producing a bilateral grand bargain on Japan’s security concerns, the abductees and prospective economic assistance for Pyongyang, would be far more risky today and is unlikely to be undertaken by Abe.

Like his predecessors, Abe will be under heavy scrutiny for this new deal at home. The Japanese public will be unforgiving of any sign that Kim Jong Un is being rewarded for the investigation, especially if that investigation produces no tangible and credible results. Abe, by making this deal, has created expectations that results are possible, and thus domestic support for his role could diminish if he too makes little progress in finding the truth about the fate of the Japanese abductees.

Diplomatically, the Abe cabinet will be hard pressed to persuade Seoul of the limits of its ambitions with Kim Jong Un. The political estrangement with South Korea over the past year has allowed a certain distance in what to date has been a collaborative relationship on North Korea policy, including the abductee issue. South Korean criticism, however, may be unwarranted. Closer trilateral policy coordination between Washington and Seoul will close the gap of skepticism about Japan’s agreement with North Korea.

Ultimately, like China and South Korea, Japan too wants some sort of leverage over the North. Tokyo has given up all trade with the North, and has very little to bargain with today. That being said, there is little appetite in Japan for returning to the offer of economic assistance should Pyongyang change course on its proliferation activities. Barring a forthcoming account of the whereabouts of Japanese abductees, Abe is unlikely to compromise further on Japan’s interests.

For now, Japan is taking small steps in response to Pyongyang’s overture and feeling its way with a leader they know little about. Undoubtedly, Abe and his diplomats are hoping for what has thus far proven elusive—a reliable account of what happened to those Japanese North Korean agents abducted decades ago. The grand promise of Japanese economic assistance, once so important to the vision of a comprehensive peace on the peninsula, may yet be forthcoming, but first Pyongyang will need to prove to the Japanese public that it can be trusted to provide honest and concrete information on the fate of the abductees. Abe may have more domestic latitude for a deal than any prime minister since Koizumi, but he is like all other leaders confronted in the region with an ever more unpredictable Pyongyang and a far less hospitable Northeast Asia.

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