Book Review: “Thirty Years of Japan-DPRK Negotiations: A History”

日朝交渉30年史 (Nitcho kosho 30-nenshi)
By Wada Haruki. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 2022. vi, 264 pp.

Cover of “Thirty Years of Japan-DPRK Negotiations: A History (日朝交渉30年史 [Nitcho kosho 30-nenshi]),” by Wada Haruki.

Diplomacy is the continuation of a nation’s internal politics. Diplomats bring to the table in international negotiations positions that reflect the politics of the nation that they represent. Writing of negotiating positions without explaining the domestic politics that produced them is useful but incomplete.[1]

The eminent Japanese academic and activist Wada Haruki, in Thirty Years of Japan-DPRK Negotiations: A History, has written an insightful book on Japan’s diplomacy regarding North Korea.[2] Although Wada is a passionate advocate for progressive causes, his book is no mere political tract, as the author cites various Japanese, Korean and US sources in support of his arguments.[3] He also takes care to present the views of Japanese on the opposing side and refer to their published works. Even so, this account is no dispassionate look back on 30 years of Tokyo’s negotiations with Pyongyang. It is an indictment of what Wada deems a history of “failure” on Tokyo’s part, with periods of successes undone by “fatal” errors and mistaken policies. As the book’s strength lies in presenting political clashes within Japan, its weakness is its lack of information on the political developments in Pyongyang during the period covered. Given the extreme paucity of verifiable information on what goes on within Pyongyang’s policymaking circles, however, Wada cannot be faulted. The book stands apart from others on North Korea due to the author’s depth as an academic, one able to research sources in Korean, Chinese, English and Japanese, and as an activist who fought in the intellectual trenches alongside fellow Japanese and Korean progressives for democracy in the ROK and engagement with the DPRK. It also differs from other books for its focus on clashes in Japan among different factions interested in Korean issues.

Author’s Background

Wada Haruki is a prominent Japanese academic and a tireless activist. A graduate of the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Literature, a professor emeritus there, and a former director of the university’s Institute of Social Sciences, he has written hundreds of articles and books since the 1960s, primarily works of history and current events on the former Soviet Union, Russia, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).[4] His record of activism includes campaigning for democracy in the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the release from prison of the ROK novelist Hwang Sok-yong.[5] Some of his previous books have been impressive works of wide-ranging research, products of his digging through Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Russian and US sources in various archives and libraries. In his 1993 wartime history of Kim Il Sung, 金日成と満州抗日戦争 [Kin Nissei to Manshu Konichi Senso, Kim Il Sung and the War Against Japan in Manchuria] (Heibonsha, 1993), Wada wrote of how Kim led Koreans under Communist Chinese command in fighting the Japanese in Manchuria. In 朝鮮戦争全史 [Chosen Senso zenshi, A Complete History of the Korean War] (Iwanami Shoten, 2002), first published in Frank Baldwin’s English translation in 2014 by Rowman & Littlefield as The Korean War: An International History, Wada presented the conflict as a Korean civil war that turned into a war fought on Korean soil between the United States and China.

Wada has also been prolific in penning articles and books that take positions on contentious contemporary issues. His interests as an activist include Japan’s relations with North Korea and Japanese compensation for Korean “comfort women” (慰安婦, ianfu).[6] Many of his positions have appeared in Japan as articles in the pages of Sekai, a prominent progressive magazine.

Familiar Story, New Characters

In the course of nine chapters, Wada reviews 30 years of diplomatic negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang from 1991 to 2021.

In a prelude to the main story, Kanemaru Shin of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Tanabe Makoto of the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) led in 1990 a delegation of politicians to Pyongyang and signed with Kim Yong Sun of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) the Joint Declaration that opened the way to official negotiations between the Japanese and DPRK governments for the establishment of normal diplomatic relations. Those talks, which began with some promise in January 1991, ruptured in November 1992. There followed the first nuclear crisis, which Pyongyang triggered in March 1993 by announcing its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ending with the visit of former President Carter to Pyongyang in June 1994 and the signing of the US-DPRK Agreed Framework (AF) accord later that year.

In September 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi visited Pyongyang and signed with National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration. Then came the second nuclear crisis, sparked by the revelation following Assistant Secretary of State Kelly’s October 2002 visit to Pyongyang of the DPRK’s undeclared nuclear enrichment program, which led to the end of the AF and the establishment the next year of the Six Party Talks.

The author, who has served as secretary-general of the National Association for Normalization of Japan-DPRK Relations,[7] has long advocated the establishment of normal diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang as a means to settle issues from the period of Japanese colonial rule over Korea and promote security in Northeast Asia.[8] Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s 2002 visit to Pyongyang and the signing of the joint Pyongyang Declaration buoyed the hopes of Wada and other proponents of normalization for imminent normalization. Subsequent events soon disappointed them. Following the death in 2021 of Associate Vice President Miki, Wada convened a conference of colleagues to review what they saw as the Association’s “defeat” (7) and the “failure” (8) of the Government of Japan (GOJ) over a period of 30 years of negotiations to normalize relations with the DPRK.[9] Wada’s compilation and subsequent publication of their findings served as the basis of the book under review here. While covering much the same ground as others who have written the Korean Peninsula in this period, Wada puts particular emphasis on the struggles waged in Japan outside the government over North Korea.[10] On one side stood those calling for normalization, many of them on the “progressive” side of Japanese politics.[11] They waged their battles in part through articles published in the daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun and the monthly magazine Sekai. Arrayed against them were those Wada terms the “opposing forces” (48), many of whom were members of the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN) and the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN). They declared their antipathy to Pyongyang and attacked Wada’s side in articles published in such media as the anti-Pyongyang monthly Gendai Koriya (Modern Korea) and the conservative monthly Shokun!.[12]

Wada is severe in his criticism of the “opposing forces,” accusing them of practicing sensationalist journalism,. For instance, he cites with displeasure the repeated attacks made in the pages of Gendai Koriya on Yoshida Takeshi—a businessman and conduit between Tokyo and Pyongyang, born in Japan to a Korean father and a Japanese mother—as an “agent” of Pyongyang; one article smeared him as “an operative of the WPK United Front Department” engaged in operations against Japan (67).[13] Wada also paints partisans of the “Gendai Koriya group” as having seized on the issue of Japanese abducted to North Korea with the aim of thereby achieving “takeoff” for their “movement” (57).

More alarming than Wada’s writing of scurrilous media attacks of the opposition camp on proponents of normalization and their supposedly cynical manipulation of the abduction issue is his directly quoting an opposing figure, Sato Katsumi, president of NARKN. Sato candidly wrote in one book that his side’s goal was for Tokyo not to negotiate with but to overthrow the government in Pyongyang, which would somehow result in the return to Japan of the abducted Japanese supposedly still alive in North Korea. True, Sato wrote, destabilizing Pyongyang could also trigger waves of assassinations, civil war, and even war with Japan but, even in that direst case, Tokyo could simply turn to Washington to save the day (132-133).[14]

Apart from the struggles between competing “movements” outside the GOJ, Wada also devotes many pages to two LDP leaders: Koizumi Shinichiro and Abe Shinzo. In Wada’s view, Prime Minister Koizumi, working with dedicated Japanese diplomats, twice had summit meetings in Pyongyang (2002, 2004); signed the Pyongyang Declaration; had Kim Jong Il admit to DPRK abductions of Japanese citizens, apologize, and promise to take steps to prevent such acts from ever happening again; secured the return to Japan of five abducted Japanese and several DPRK-born children of theirs; and prepared the way for normalization.[15] Fatally, in Wada’s judgment, Koizumi failed to explain his achievements to the Japanese public; his diplomatic achievements turned to dust due to Japanese popular anger over the news of the admitted abductions and stated deaths of most of the abducted Japanese.[16]

Prime Minister Abe, according to Wada, subsequently led Japan down a dead end. Prime Minister Koizumi in 2002 had left Abe, a hardliner on Korean issues who was then his deputy chief cabinet secretary, out of the loop during secret negotiations with Pyongyang preceding his visit but had left him in his cabinet. Abe succeeded Koizumi in 2006, then opted for pressure—sanctions and propaganda—on Pyongyang over negotiations.[17] After leaving office in 2007, Abe returned as prime minister in 2012 and headed the government until 2020. During those years, according to Wada, Abe held relations with Pyongyang hostage to the immediate release of abducted Japanese whom Pyongyang insisted had died. Wada sees the two succeeding prime ministers, Suga Yoshihide and Kishida Fumio, the incumbent, as having merely followed Abe’s line.

Lamenting Tokyo’s Enlistment in Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

Wada devotes much less space to the knotty problem of Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons, including the missiles for delivery, but seems to see the issue as surmountable. At one point, he quotes Kim Jong Il telling Koizumi at their 2004 Pyongyang meeting that the DPRK weapons program was a matter of survival in light of Washington’s unwillingness to take its option of first strike off the table (147). As the author quotes Kim in this case without criticism, it seems reasonable to place Wada among those who see Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament as possible under the right international circumstances. Wada’s book would be stronger if he had written in greater detail on this important point.

Wada ends his book by lamenting what he views as Tokyo’s adoption of the slogan of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” to “beat a retreat from the Korean Peninsula as well as the Sea of Japan and Northeast Asia, advance south, and, from southern seas, join the United States in applying pressure against China.” The “Japanese people’s security and Japan’s peace,” Wada concludes, now face the threat of “neighboring countries armed with nuclear weapons” in a state of hostility (263).

Wada’s book is one that he has written as an activist leading a movement to prompt Tokyo to normalize relations with Pyongyang in order to right certain wrongs of Japanese history and promote peace in Northeast Asia. Different from other authors, he has rendered readers a service by showing us the domestic dimension of Tokyo’s foreign policy toward the Korean Peninsula. For a similar account of Pyongyang’s domestic political machinery, we may have to wait for some future book from a future high-level defector.

  1. [1]

    See my review for Yamamoto Eiji’s memoir of negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang, Kitachosen gaiko kaikoroku, published by 38 North earlier this year. I wrote then that the retired diplomat’s book was a useful review but lacking in its neglect of Japanese domestic politics as a factor in Japan’s diplomacy.

  2. [2]

    Korean and Japanese names in this review are written in the traditional way, with surnames preceding given names. Korean names, with the exception of leader Kim Il Song (Kim Il Sung), are written in Pyongyang’s version of the conventional McCune-Reischauer transliteration system. Variants follow in some cases between parentheses. The names of Korean publishers are written, without diacritical marks, as found in the catalog of the Library of Congress. Translations, other than for the names of organizations, in this review, are mine.

  3. [3]

    Among the Japanese works cited are two books by Tanaka Hitoshi, the Japanese diplomat who played a key role in Prime Minister Koizumi’s Korea policy: 国家と外交 [Kokka to gaiko, The State and Diplomacy] (Kodansha, 2005) and 外交の力 [Gaiko no chikara, The Power of Diplomacy] (Nihon Keizai Shimbun Shuppansha, 2009). Don Oberdorfer’s Two Koreas and Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland’s Famine in North Korea number among the US sources. Korean citations, relatively few in this book, include the memoirs of Rim Dong Won (임동원, Im Tong-won, Lim Dong-won) and Thae Yong Ho. Rim, the former general, unification minister, and architect of President Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine policy toward North Korea, wrote 피스메이커 (Seoul: Chungang Buksu, 2008). Thae, the DPRK diplomat who defected to the Republic of Korea (ROK) from his post in London in 2016, wrote 3층 서거실의 암호 (Seoul: Kiparang, 2018). For my review of Rim’s book, see “Evangelist of Engagement,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 22, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 565-568. For my review of Thae’s memoir, see Studies in Intelligence 65, no. 4 (December 2021): 67-69.

  4. [4]

    His name appears in several hundred listings in the online catalog of Japan’s National Diet Library ( as sole or contributing author of numerous articles and books since 1960. The US Library of Congress catalog ( has 84 titles under his name. The catalog of the National Library of Korea ( shows 120 titles under Wada’s name, including 69 in Korean translation.

  5. [5]

    Hwang acknowledges Wada’s efforts in his autobiography Suin (Munhak Dongne, 2017); Verso, in 2021, published the book, in an English translation by Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell, as The Prisoner.

  6. [6]

    The term refers to women from Korea and elsewhere who were deceived, pressed or recruited to provide sex to Japanese military men. According to George Hicks’s Comfort Women (W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), Japan established the first official brothel for Japanese military use in Shanghai in 1938. The final official brothels, to my knowledge, were those that the Japanese government established in Japan, under the Recreation and Amusements Association (RAA), in 1945 for incoming Allied Occupation personnel. See my book, The Shadow Warriors of Nakano (Brassey’s, 2002), 190.

  7. [7]

    Established in part due to Wada’s efforts, the organization, 日朝国交促進協会 (Nitcho Kokko Sokushin Kyokai, literally the Association for the Promotion of Japan-Korea Diplomatic Relations) has been translated in English as the National Association for Normalization of Japan-North Korea Relations. Given Wada’s political views, however, I think that “DPRK” is better than the informal, somewhat pejorative “North Korea” as a translation. The Association was established in 2000 with former Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi as president and retired Ambassador Akashi Yasushi, economic Sumiya Mikio, and Miki Mutsuko, widow of former Prime Minister Miki Takeo, as vice presidents.

  8. [8]

    The Japanese Empire, following victories in wars against Qing China (1895) and Czarist Russia (1905), took increasing control over Korean affairs before its formal annexation of Korea in 1910.

  9. [9]

    Wada oversaw the proceedings, held under the name 日朝国交交渉検証会議 (Nitcho Kokko Kosho Kensho Kaigi). I have not seen an English translation yet, but one could translate it as the Conference to Review the Negotiations for Diplomatic Relations.

  10. [10]

    For an example, see retired Ambassador Yamamoto Eiji’s 北朝鮮外交回顧録 (Kitachosen gaiko kaikoroku), published last year by 38 North.

  11. [11]

    I would argue that “progressive,” a nebulous term, refers in Japan to those whose worldview includes such elements as antipathy toward the ruling LDP, opposition to any revision of the Constitution that would provide a clear and legal basis for Japan’s military forces and war, and support for a Japanese foreign policy “independent” of the United States.

  12. [12]

    Leading figures of the opposition were Sato Katsumi and Nishioka Tsutomu. Sato, who passed away in 2013, was the first president of NARKN and head of the Modern Korea Research Institute, which published the monthly Gendai Koriya. Nishioka, who worked from 1990 to 2002 as chief editor of Gendai Koriya, became president of NARKN in 2010. Details on the careers of Sato and Nishioka are available in Japanese on Japan’s Weblio website ( as well as in the book. For Wada, Sato seems to have been a particular bete noire. His name appears on more pages of the book than any other member of the “opposing forces” outside the government.

  13. [13]

    Wada describes Yoshida Takeshi—his Japanese surname coming from his Korean father’s adoption of a Japanese name in taking Japanese citizenship—as the son of Yoshida Tatsuo, who conducted business under the patronage of General Matsui Iwane and, after the war, founded a trading company in Japan. The younger Yoshida, according to Wada, served both Tokyo and Seoul as a “pipeline,” or connection, to Pyongyang (55).

  14. [14]

    Sato Katsumi. 拉致家族「金正日との戦い」全軌跡 [Rachi kazoku ‘Kin Seinichi to no tatakai’ zenkiseki, Families of the Abucted: The Complete Locus of ‘The Fight Against Kim Jong Il’] (Shogakukan, 2002). Sato’s apparently poor judgment on international affairs appears in the title of a previous book, one predicting over 30 years ago Pyongyang’s imminent demise: 破壊する北朝鮮:日朝交渉急ぐべからず [Hakai suru Kitachosen: Nitcho kosho isogu bekarazu, The North Korea That Is To Collapse: Do Not Hurry Japan-North Korea Negotiations] (Tokyo: Nesco, 1991).

  15. [15]

    Those who left North Korea for Japan included the abducted Soga Hitomi; her husband, the US Army deserter Sgt. Charles Jenkins; and their two daughters. Jenkins included some details of their transfer in the English and Japanese versions of his memoir. See my review article of his books, “An American Deserter and the Shortcomings of the US Publishing Industry,” Intelligence and National Security, 26:5 (November 2011), pp 730-736.

  16. [16]

    Tokyo reportedly had submitted a list of 11 persons as possible abduction victims and asked Pyongyang to investigate their cases prior to Koizumi’s 2002 visit. To the shock of the Japanese delegation, the Koreans presented a list of 13 abducted Japanese and reported that eight of them were dead (109).

  17. [17]

    Wada casts Abe’s goal regarding Pyongyang as toppling the government there rather than normalizing relations, quoting the following passage from Abe’s 2006 book 美しい国へ [Utsukushii kuni e, Toward a Beautiful Country] (Bungei Shunju), which he terms Abe’s political manifesto: “One goal of economic sanctions is to stop funds flowing to the core of the regime, to the party and the military. Even if it does not result in a decisive blow that brings down the regime, the sanctions may well set off a chemical reaction.” Wada follows the quotation by condemning Abe’s thinking as “clearly that of Sato Katsumi” (179). As for propaganda, Wada disparages the Abe administration’s broadcasting shortwave radio propaganda programs in Japanese and Korean—ふるさとの風 / 일본의바람 [Furusato no kaze / Ilbon ui param, Hometown Wind (J) / Japan Wind (K)]. Wada suggests that, while there is no way of knowing if any Japanese in North Korea have heard these broadcasts, DPRK authorities certainly must have monitored them and viewed their intent as hostile. Wada also decries what he sees as GOJ domestic propaganda in the Abe years (191-192).

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