Book Review: “A Memoir of North Korean Diplomacy”

北朝鮮外交回顧録 (Kitachosen gaiko kaikoroku)
By Yamamoto Eiji.[1] Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 2022. 294 pp.

Japanese cover of “A Memoir of North Korean Diplomacy” by Yamamoto Eiji.

Learning from the past can help one in the future. Yamamoto Eiji, a retired diplomat who spent much of his career engaged in Pyongyang matters, sees merit in looking back on Japan’s North Korean diplomacy in the period from the Cold War’s end to Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s historic Pyongyang visits early in the 21st century. Such a review, he writes, would help Tokyo learn from the past and, going forward, better pursue Japanese interests involving North Korea.

As a key figure in Japan-DPRK relations over the years—whether working in Tokyo, New York or Pyongyang at one time or another—the author brings to this book details and insights gained from experience. He is no mere academic, analyst or journalist, writing analysis without ever having been in the room where the diplomatic action took place. That is the book’s strength. Its weakness is in Yamamoto’s somewhat lofty view of the action from his position as a diplomat. The reason: politics among nations is as much, if not more, the realm of politicians, industrialists and generals as it is that of diplomats.

Author’s Background

Born in Osaka in 1957, Yamamoto Eiji graduated in 1980 from Soka University’s Faculty of Law and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) the same year. After earning a master’s degree in international studies at Harvard University in 1983, the MFA assigned him to Seoul to study at Yonsei University and Seoul National University and to work at the Embassy of Japan for a year and a half. Later assignments included a role in the MFA Northeast Asia Division and a return to Seoul in 2004 as minister at the Embassy of Japan. After serving in several other positions, including postings as ambassador to Timor-Leste and Brunei, Yamamoto retired in 2021.[2]

After his tour in Seoul, Izumi Hajime, a prominent Japanese expert on North Korea, encouraged Yamamoto to write two books based on his experiences as a diplomat: one on the Republic of Korea (ROK) and another on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).[3] In his first book, published in 2008, Yamamoto described changes since he first landed in Seoul as a young official in 1984 and wrote of the ROK’s future prospects.[4] He wrote his second book in 2022, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to Pyongyang. It is both a memoir and a review of Japan’s North Korean diplomacy.

Two Decades of Diplomacy Recounted in Seven Chapters

In the seven main chapters of his book, Yamamoto reviews Tokyo’s efforts to establish normal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang while demanding an account of Japanese citizens who were abducted or went missing in North Korea and an end to the DPRK’s development of its nuclear weapons program. The book’s first chapter is an account of Japanese politicians, with power broker Kanemaru Shin of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) “opening a breach” in visits to Pyongyang in late1990. The second chapter covers the first bilateral government negotiations, which lasted from January 1991 to November 1992, to establish normal relations. The third is devoted to the nuclear crisis, which began in March 1993 with the DPRK’s announced withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and ended in October 1994 with the signing of the Agreed Framework (AF) between Washington and Pyongyang. The fourth chapter traces the project to build a light water reactor in the DPRK as part of the AF from its start in March 1995 to its abandonment in May 2006. The fifth recounts relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang in the latter half of the 1990s after the North’s first nuclear crisis. The sixth reviews the DPRK’s second nuclear crisis, with the end of the AF after Pyongyang’s admission of running a covert uranium enrichment program in 2002 and the AF being replaced in 2003 with the Six-Party Talks.[5] The seventh chapter brings the era to a close with the historic Pyongyang summit meeting on September 17, 2002 between Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il.

Yamamoto, writing as a diplomat, clearly articulates Tokyo’s interests in bilateral negotiations with the North and other concerned parties in regard to the DPRK’s development of nuclear weapons. He also shines a light on connections between Japanese foreign relations and domestic politics, with one example being Tokyo’s provision of food aid to Pyongyang. In 1995, a prominent LDP politician hit on the idea of offering unwanted rice imported from Tokyo to Pyongyang via minimum access quotas as a way to advance diplomacy while relieving Japan’s bulging storehouses of foreign rice. As a result, Pyongyang formally requested food aid.

The MFA’s official position since Kanemaru’s 1990 visit was that no official aid would be provided prior to the establishment of normal foreign relations. However, 150,000 tons of imported rice were sent to Pyongyang via the Japanese Red Cross Society (169-171). The Japanese Red Cross Society also served MFA’s interest in accounting for missing Japanese citizens. Pyongyang had rejected discussing the issue in bilateral government negotiations, so the Japanese and DPRK Red Cross societies met, with Japanese diplomats attending, to discuss the issue. The unofficial discussions yielded results: in September 1997, the first group of Japanese spouses residing in North Korea returned to Japan to visit family members.[6]

In Yamamoto’s recounting of bilateral talks from 1990 to 2012, the MFA conducted negotiations that resulted in narrowing the vast gulf that first existed between the two sides, brought Pyongyang to admit culpability for abducting Japanese citizens, achieved the release of some of the abductees to Japan and obtained Pyongyang’s recognition of the “need” to resolve the problem of the DPRK nuclear and missile programs. In earlier talks, Pyongyang had called for wartime reparations—in line with regime propaganda that Kim Il Sung had defeated Japan in 1945 after 15 years of warfare—and compensation for damages due to 45 post-war years without a settlement between the two countries (59).[7] The DPRK had also rejected official talks on missing Japanese citizens and insisted that the nuclear issue was a matter regarding the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United States, not Japan.

The 2002 Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration that Prime Minister Koizumi and National Defense Commission Chairman Kim signed was a victory for Japanese diplomacy. The declaration did not include any references to reparations or post-war compensation, only the standard language on grant aid, low-interest loans and other economic cooperation once the two sides established normal relations. As for the missing Japanese, the declaration included language by which the DPRK admitted to the abductions, apologized and promised “to take appropriate measures to ensure” that this did not happen again. Pyongyang also admitted to the “need to promote dialogue among the parties concerned, and seek solutions to various security issues, including nuclear and missile issues.”[8] In addition to these gains, Prime Minister Koizumi flew back to Tokyo with five Japanese individuals who had been abducted.[9]

In addition to bilateral issues, Yamamoto also devotes much detail to Tokyo’s relations with Seoul and Washington. Japanese officials had to take American and South Korean interests into account when pursuing their own agenda with Pyongyang. Washington, Yamamoto recalls, would prompt Tokyo time and again to press hard on the nuclear issue (70). Seoul, for its part, was wary of Tokyo neglecting or hurting its interests in seeking to establish normal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. On the other hand, Japanese officials shared an interest with the US and ROK counterparts in halting the DPRK nuclear and missile programs.

Impressions, Anecdotes, Details and Sources

In addition to the clarity of its writing, this book is outstanding for its personal impressions, first-hand anecdotes and myriad of details that Yamamoto brings into it. Yamamoto, who was with Kanemaru in Pyongyang in 1990, found the capital upon first sight in 1990 to be a beautiful city of rivers and willows (17). The desolate appearance of Sariwon, the provincial capital of North Hwanghae Province, eight years later was shocking to him (180).[10] Song Il Ho, Pyongyang’s longtime point man for talks with Japan, impressed him as a “sharp, young” member of the elite, someone “rather free” and humorous in his way of speaking (19-20). Kim Il Sung, with whom he conversed in Korean, seemed an old man with a wrinkled face and eyes lacking in luster (27). On the other hand, Yamamoto seemed to immediately detect an “aura” seemingly emanating from Kim Jong Il (42).

Anecdotes are a strong point of this book. No armchair academic, Yamamoto served as a diplomat, able to converse in Korean and English in Seoul and New York. He visited North Korea multiple times over the years. Of his numerous anecdotes, one is about diplomats and fish. In the first nuclear crisis, Yamamoto, who was serving at the United Nations (UN) headquarters, worked with ROK counterpart Yi Su Hyok to learn the latest developments at the Security Council, where their countries were not permanent members, by offering US diplomat David Wallace takeout sushi from a favorite Manhattan restaurant in exchange for briefings on what had transpired at council meetings (109).

The details provided add value to this book, the most impressive of which are the ones pertaining to the DPRK.[11] Yamamoto tells readers where officials lodged Japanese diplomats and had meetings with them: the Paekhwawon Guest House, Koryo Hotel and Taedonggang Guest House. He names Ryongsong Station as the rail station from which the Kanemaru delegation departed for a summit meeting with Kim Il Sung at Myohyangsan. He also names the many DPRK officials who negotiated with Japan, the United States and other countries during this period, with Kim Yong Sun, Chon In Chol, Song Il Ho and Kang Sok Ju among them. The author even identifies the DPRK Foreign Ministry’s 14th Bureau as being responsible for negotiations with Japan.

Equally impressive as the first-hand information that Yamamoto gained over the years are the many sources that he marshaled. His Japanese references include such prominent academics as Izumi Hajime and Okonogi Masao and the journalist Kamoshita Hiromi. He cites such major American sources as the journalist Don Oberdorfer’s classic Two Koreas, first-hand accounts by Madeleine Albright and Kenneth Quinones and such relevant media as Foreign Affairs. From Korean sources, Yamamoto draws on information from Pyongyang’s party journal Kulloja and the daily Rodong Sinmun. He also supplements direct exploitation of DPRK information by turning to Radio Press (RP), a Japanese counterpart to the US Government’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), for information on Pyongyang’s policies.[12]

Learning From the Past to Act in the Present

After reviewing the period of diplomacy from Kanemaru’s visit to Pyongyang in 1990 to Koizumi’s visits in 2002 and 2004, the author concludes the main part of this book with a brief summary of events from that period to the end of Seoul’s Moon Jae-in government in early 2022 and a few lessons for the future that he draws upon from the past. Yamamoto suggests that circumstances favor Tokyo’s engagement with Pyongyang at a time when the DPRK has been suffering from international sanctions, natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. He also proposes that Japan open a liaison office in Pyongyang as an “effective measure” in support of future negotiations.

Yamamoto then offers seven proposals. 1.) That the international community, particularly South Korea and China, respond firmly with “severe measures” to North Korean threats (280). 2.) That an effective approach would involve applying an “appropriate degree” of pressure with “incentives” (281). 3.) That it would be better to go big, such as calling for the elimination of all nuclear facilities, accession to the NPT and requiring an acceptance of IAEA inspections within a year in return for the normalization of US-DPRK relations, rather than negotiating small steps that allow Pyongyang to play its trump cards over and over again (284). 4.) That Tokyo should put pressure on Pyongyang while making a case for the “great” benefits for the DPRK to wait following improved relations by “us[ing] a framework like that of the Six-Party Talks” to resolve the issues of abducted Japanese citizens, nuclear weapons, and missiles (284). 5.) Given the complications that have arisen in the past from Pyongyang playing Japanese politicians against diplomats, it would be best to negotiate with the DPRK exclusively via the Japanese government. 6.) Given Pyongyang’s past exploitation of differences among government administrations in Tokyo, Washington and Seoul, close coordination is required. 7.) That the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and missiles, which threaten Japan’s own security, are problems that “cannot be left to the United States alone” and that Japan must “seriously think about them” (287). Yamamoto then concludes that normalization of relations and economic cooperation are the strongest cards that Tokyo is holding and suggests that “the time has come to use them boldly” (287).

Reviewing his years of diplomatic service, Yamamoto sees Prime Minister Koizumi’s engagement with National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il as a success. Japan’s MFA achieved its longstanding goal of having North Korea drop reparations for economic aid along the lines of the 1965 Basic Treaty with South Korea. The Pyongyang Declaration also addressed Japanese government concerns over the abductions and the North’s nuclear program. His conviction that normalized relations and economic cooperation are Japan’s strongest card for future negotiations seems to come from the 2002 summit in Pyongyang.

However, much of the past seems unclear. For instance, Yamamoto credits fear of the United States as another reason for Kim’s concessions to Koizumi, yet elsewhere sees American “neocon” hardliners in the administration of George W. Bush hindering Japan’s approach to North Korea (244). These contradictions and inconsistencies make it difficult to get a clear understanding of the motivations and factors driving certain decisions. In general, Yamamoto devotes most of his book to diplomatic matters, neglecting to go in-depth into the influence of domestic politics in Japan, South Korea and the United States on Tokyo’s attempts to normalize  relations with Pyongyang.

All that said, I think it would be uncharitable to condemn the author for his focus on diplomacy. The book succeeds in what it is—a memoir of a retired diplomat who reviews past diplomatic history and insights to inform future negotiations. My chief disappointment with the book was a lack of a chronology or even an index to help guide readers through a chain of events, although this is a peculiarity of the Japanese publishing industry. It also is a pity that relatively few people outside Japan will have the opportunity to read this book unless an English translation comes out.[13]

  1. [1]

    Korean and Japanese names in this review are written in the traditional way, with surnames preceding given names. Korean names, other than Kim Il Sung and Moon Jae-in, are written in Pyongyang’s version of the conventional McCune-Reischauer transliteration system.

  2. [2]

    Yamamoto’s biographical and career information comes from the author’s profile in his two books and the foreword of his first book.

  3. [3]

    Izumi Hajime, professor emeritus of Shizuoka University and former director of its Center for Korean Studies, is a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University.

  4. [4]

    Yamamoto Eiji. Gendai Kankoku no henka to tenbo [Contemporary South Korea: Changes and Prospects]. Tokyo: Ronsosha, 2008.

  5. [5]

    The six parties were the DPRK, the ROK, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

  6. [6]

    In the initial bilateral talks with Pyongyang, Tokyo raised the issue of “Ri Un Hui”–the Korean name for an abducted Japanese individual who allegedly served as a language teacher to DPRK operative Kim Hyon Hui, who was captured after executing the 1987 terrorist bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 with a senior operative. Since those first talks, Japan has continued to demand an accounting for Japanese believed to have been abducted to North Korea, as well as for Japanese spouses who accompanied their Korean partners to the DPRK from Japan in a postwar repatriation campaign.

  7. [7]

    Prior to the first bilateral government negotiations, the LDP’s Kanemaru had accepted Pyongyang’s demand for 45 years of postwar compensation as a form of an “interest” payment (64). The joint declaration that was signed in Pyongyang on September 28, 1990 by LDP representative Kanemaru, Tanabe Makoto of the Japan Socialist Party and Kim Yong Sun of the Workers Party of Korea includes a reference in the first article to Japan’s obligation to offer compensation for 45 years of post-war losses suffered by “the Korean people” in the absence of bilateral relations.

  8. [8]

    Japanese-to-English translation of text from the 2002 Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration.

  9. [9]

    The official MFA tally of abducted Japanese is 17, leaving 12 citizens whose whereabouts remain unknown. Pyongyang has claimed that some of them died and that they had no record of others.

  10. [10]

    Visiting the DPRK in 1998 on an inspection tour of the damage suffered from natural disasters, Yamamoto was shocked at the appearance of Sariwon, where “many of its concrete buildings appeared to be in ruins. The city had no color to it. It was like looking at old sepia photographs. Many people dressed in gray seemed to be milling about aimlessly in the streets.” (180) [The site of people in the countryside trudging along the roads, carrying items to sell in the city, reminded him of photographs of Japan after the Second World War. When his vehicle neared Pyongyang and the desolate countryside gave way to tall buildings, Yamamoto “thought that we had come to paradise” (181).

  11. [11]

    A few books published in the United States go into detail on Pyongyang matters. Going Critical, by Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci, springs to mind as a worthy American counterpart to Yamamoto’s book. Far more common, in my mind, are books such as William C. Triplett’s Rogue State. Its index lists only three Kims. Two are successive, DPRK leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The third is the operative Kim Kyon Hui.

  12. [12]

    RP, originally the MFA’s “Radio Room” for monitoring US and other foreign broadcasts during WWII, has kept its principal focus on the monitoring and analysis of broadcast media from Russia, China and North Korea since the war. Yamamoto cites the RP publication Kitachosen seisaku doko (Trends in North Korean Policy) as one of his sources. Coincidentally, American writers similarly turned to FBIS throughout its existence (1941-2005) for information and analysis. Joel Wit et al. in Going Critical, for example, cite DPRK media analysis published in FBIS Trends.

  13. [13]

    While the Japanese publishing industry has published in Japanese translation many nonfiction works on Korea, including David Halberstam’s Coldest Winter, Andrei Lankov’s Real North Korea, and Don Oberdorfer’s Two Koreas, I can think of no Japanese book other than Wada Haruki’s Korean War (original, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2002; translation, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) that an American publisher has produced in English.

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