In Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Sept. 17, 2002, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi emerged from his government jet with an air of determination.
Most of his structural reform agenda had come to a standstill, but on the diplomatic front his administration was cooking.
The greatest feat of Koizumi’s time in office was his summit with the North Korean leader, the first by a Japanese prime minister.
The outcome of the meeting, however, was to be bittersweet.
Kim for the first time admitted that North Korean agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. He told Koizumi five were alive and the remainder had since died.
Despite the revelation, the two leaders inked a joint declaration that mapped out a route toward normalizing diplomatic ties, inviting public criticism in Japan over the government’s handling of Pyongyang.
Nevertheless, public support for Koizumi rose 12.7 percentage points to 66.6 percent after the Pyongyang summit, according to a Kyodo News survey conducted shortly after the visit.
Koizumi’s “visit to North Korea was the most dynamic example of Japanese diplomacy in recent years,” said Masao Okonogi, a professor of Korean issues at Keio University.
While many agree that Koizumi scored big points for his visit to Pyongyang, others have criticized him for not having a clear policy goal of his own and failing to resolve the abduction issue following the visit.
The ensuing confusion was left unresolved by Koizumi, creating a policy rift within his administration, which has shown an inconsistent approach toward Pyongyang, critics say.
Koizumi’s key aides were sharply split over whether to take a hardline stance toward North Korea or pursue dialogue with the reclusive state.
The rift became a chasm in October, when the five surviving abductees returned to Japan for the first time in decades, ostensibly for a short visit.
Placing a priority on diplomacy, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda insisted that the five abductees should be sent back to North Korea before permanently returning to Japan at a later date. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a hardliner on North Korea-related issues, insisted they remain in Japan.
As the division within the government became apparent, the public, who sympathized with the abductees and their families, grew increasingly critical of the government’s indecisiveness.
“The biggest failure of Mr. Koizumi is that he does not have a clear policy on North Korea,” said Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Katsuei Hirasawa, who actively supports the activities of abductees and their families.
The abductees ended up staying in Japan, but the government could have avoided unnecessary confusion if Koizumi had a policy of his own, Hirasawa said.
Some critics say Koizumi skillfully used the differences of opinion, allowing others to take the initiative so he would not have to take the blame if there was a policy failure.
The most notable case was that of Hitoshi Tanaka, a foreign ministry bureaucrat who was the chief negotiator during the Pyongyang summit.
Koizumi allowed Tanaka to hold secret negotiations with the so-called Mr. X, allegedly a close aide to Kim, at his own discretion, successfully realizing Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang.
Before Koizumi’s visit, Tanaka, independent of his colleagues, had already mapped out a plan to normalize relations with North Korea by Jan. 1, 2003, and provide economic aid to the impoverished state beginning that year, according to a senior foreign ministry official.
“Most senior officials in the ministry did not know about such a concrete plan until late August last year,” according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But Mr. Tanaka sounded so confident that Japan would work out the normalization by the end of 2002, as if everything had already been agreed upon between the two governments.”
Some experts claim Tanaka had secretly promised North Korea 170 billion yen in annual economic aid for the next six years — a total of almost 1 trillion yen. This explains why North Korea was so welcoming of Koizumi, they say.
But many in the government have reprehended Tanaka for taking it on himself to extend such a pledge, and have asked who is ultimately responsible for this decision.
“What country would allow a bureaucrat to carry out such important diplomacy by himself?” Hirasawa asked.
He said Koizumi should have created a team of experts selected from the Foreign Ministry, Defense Agency and National Police Agency to develop a comprehensive strategy rather than relying on a few of his close aides.
Japan’s go-it-alone approach also upset Washington, whose prime interest was to resolve North Korea’s suspected nuclear development program. Japan’s methods created suspicions and tension on the U.S. side.
The day after the abductees returned to Japan on Oct. 15, 2002, the U.S. revealed that North Korea had already admitted to having a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons in violation of a 1994 agreement.
Koizumi was suddenly forced to change tack, and shifted to a hardline stance toward North Korea.
“At that time, many people in Washington feared that Japan might extend economic assistance to Pyongyang because it desperately sought a breakthrough on the abduction issue,” said Katsu Furukawa, senior research associate of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington.
The U.S. was seriously concerned at the time that international pressure on North Korea would not work if Tokyo independently tried to appease Pyongyang.
In response, negotiations between Japan and North Korea were suspended in October and the two countries did not meet again until the six-nation talks in Beijing last month, when senior officials of both nations briefly talked on the sidelines.
Observers agree that Japan now has no choice but to try to resolve the abduction issue within the framework of the six-nation talks.
“Japan should make the utmost effort to advance the six-way talks because they also hold the key to bilateral negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang,” Keio University’s Okonogi said. “For example, Japan can dispatch envoys to (North Korea) or host another round of six-way negotiation in Tokyo.”
Monterey Institute’s Furukawa agrees.
“What North Korea wants the most from the talks is an assurance from the U.S. that the current North Korean regime will survive and Japan will provide economic assistance,” he said. “There is no other country that can provide such a huge aid package, and in that sense, Japan holds a strong diplomatic card.”
Furukawa said Japan needs to draw a pragmatic road map to resolve North Korean issues.
“When it comes to the abduction issue, Japan tends to keep pushing its demand to the end, and there seems to be no room for negotiation,” he said. “What Mr. Koizumi needs to do is clearly show the public what kind of road map Japan has and for which goal Japan is heading.”