Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s dramatic trip to North Korea this week to win the release of two American journalists stands in sharp contrast to Japan’s lack of an effective strategy to resolve the fate of its own citizens abducted by Pyongyang.
Clinton’s trip, on the other hand, conjures up the two historic Pyongyang visits in 2002 by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that resulted in the repatriation of five abductees, the only ones out of a list of 17 to have come home.
On Thursday, a senior U.S. official contacted Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura to provide details of Clinton’s Pyongyang trip, saying the ex-president called on Kim Jong Il to open an investigation into the yet-to-be-repatriated Japanese abducted by North Korean agents.
Although Kim did not respond to Clinton’s request, Kawamura thanked the U.S. official for Washington’s support, the Foreign Ministry said.
But Kawamura’s appreciation is “merely diplomatic protocol,” political analyst Hideaki Kase said, adding that many people are pessimistic about the prospects for resolving the abduction issue.
Since Pyongyang released the five Japanese, and later let their families reunite with them in Japan, the North has maintained that the rest of the abducted Japanese are dead and has refused to investigate their fates further. Regarding others on Tokyo’s list of 17 believed abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, the North maintains that they never entered the country.
“It’s clear Japan can’t solve this stalemate by itself. But it’s not like Japan can depend on the U.S.,” Kase said.
A Foreign Ministry official has tried to hold critics at bay, stressing that Clinton’s 20-hour humanitarian mission shouldn’t be seen in the same light as the abduction issue, since North Korea has not even acknowledged the existence of some of the Japanese abductees on Tokyo’s list, including repatriated abductee Hitomi Soga’s mother, who was spirited away with her.
“This is not about Japan not being able to show leadership,” the official said when asked about the lack of progress.
But following Clinton’s successful trip, relatives of those still missing have urged the government to negotiate harder to get their loved ones home.
Key to past success in negotiations with the North has been in the “top-down” approach, which bore fruit when Koizumi met Kim in 2002.
Direct talks between Kim Jong Il and other heads of state are seen as the best way to negotiate because lower-level envoys do not have the authority to cut a deal with the North Korean leader.
But would a quick visit to Pyongyang by Prime Minister Taro Aso break the logjam on the abduction issue?
Analyst Kase said that is unlikely because North Korea didn’t receive what it wanted from Tokyo when it let the five Japanese go, ostensibly for only a brief Japan visit, in 2002.
Pyongyang believes Japan betrayed it after Koizumi’s visit because the promised normalization of bilateral relations never took place, he said.
And with the Democratic Party of Japan expected to win the Aug. 30 general election, a new prime minister could be handling the abduction issue in a matter of weeks.
But a change in administration is not expected to shift Japan’s position regarding North Korea. The policies of the DPJ and Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party are the same.
Both pledge to give priority to bringing back the abductees and both condemn Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, but neither has come up with specific steps to resolve the abduction impasse.
Clinton’s trip also leaves unanswered questions regarding the North’s nuclear quest.
Washington says the visit was limited to discussing the release of the two journalists, but many believe Clinton, at least privately, called on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Foreign Ministry officials dread the thought that talks between the U.S. and North Korea could move forward without Japan and other states involved, which would make the chances of resolving the abduction issue even more remote.
But while acknowledging the U.S. is the main focus of North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy, a senior Foreign Ministry official expressed confidence that Washington will not make decisions without consulting Japan and its other allies first.