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U.S. delisting puts Japanese diplomacy to the test

by Janice Tang

Kyodo News

With North Korea being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, Japan will be forced to be more proactive in trying to resolve the emotional abduction dispute.

Tokyo can no longer depend on its closest ally and faces raised hurdles in pressing its case at the six-party nuclear talks, but Japanese leaders reacted calmly Sunday, with Prime Minister Taro Aso dismissing concerns that it would mean a loss of leverage against North Korea.

But there is likely to be growing pressure from the public, especially the families of the missing abductees, that the government step up its diplomatic efforts in dealing with North Korea, including pressuring Pyongyang to act on a promise to start reinvestigating the abduction cases by the end of fall, political analysts said.

“The abduction negotiations have never moved forward or backward because of the designation (of North Korea) as a terrorist sponsoring state. So from the beginning, the listing itself did not provide leverage for resolving the issue,” said University of Shizuoka professor Hajime Izumi, an expert on Korean Peninsula affairs.

“Japan has no choice but to find its own solution through diplomatic negotiations,” Izumi said.

But the cards in Japan’s hand are limited.

Tokyo currently imposes various economic and financial sanctions on North Korea, including banning all North Korean imports and port entry of its vessels. But many analysts doubt the effectiveness of further sanctions, as other routes such as China and South Korea are always available.

The removal of North Korea from the U.S. blacklist could also pave the way for Pyongyang to gain access to aid from international financial institutions such as the World Bank, thus further undermining the impact of Japan’s unilateral sanctions.

“Japan will have to lower its priority on the abduction issue. It can no longer be always ‘abduction first,’ especially in the six-party nuclear talks,” an analyst of Japan-North Korea negotiations said. “It will have to settle the abduction issue bilaterally with North Korea.”

However, Pyongyang is likely to avoid making significant progress amid political uncertainties in Japan over when a general election will be called and whether the ruling coalition can remain in power. It would therefore also be important for Japan to first get its house in order, he said.

“Under the current conditions when it is unclear how long the Aso administration will last, it would be difficult to get North Korea to the table for dialogue even with the cooperation of other nations concerned,” said Atsuhito Isozaki, a former Foreign Ministry official and an expert on North Korean affairs.

“Just as we don’t trust North Korea, the North’s distrust of Japan is also strong,” said Isozaki, who is currently a lecturer at Keio University in Tokyo. “To dissipate the mutual sense of mistrust, it is necessary to continue to show our willingness to engage in dialogue while maintaining a certain degree of pressure.”

He added that Japan’s sanctions alone won’t have a big enough impact and Tokyo must also seek the cooperation of China and South Korea, which combined provide more than 80 percent of North Korea’s trade and are participants in the six-party talks.

North Korea said Sunday it will resume disabling a key nuclear complex, giving impetus for the stalled six-way nuclear negotiations to proceed. Japan needs to work with the other parties to ensure the thorough verification of Pyongyang’s declaration of nuclear programs and facilities.

Once the current phase of denuclearization, which obliges North Korea to disable its nuclear facilities and declare all its nuclear programs, is completed, the talks will move to the third phase in which Pyongyang must give up all its fissile material.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials acknowledged that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear material easily, and some experts believe Pyongyang will bargain for further aid in the third phase.

While Japan has insisted so far it would not take part in giving assistance to North Korea until the abductions are addressed, the experts say it will become more difficult for Tokyo to maintain this stance amid growing discontent among other members of the talks.

The United States has already approached Japan to consider taking part in providing food aid as humanitarian assistance, government sources have said.

Japan plans to decline the request, given that North Korea has yet to launch the abduction reinvestigation and that Japanese sanctions remain in place. But pressure from the other nations is likely to mount as the denuclearization process moves forward.