SHENYANG, CHINA – Japan’s agreement with North Korea to restart formal government-to-government talks later this month after an interval of more than a year can be viewed as one of the few diplomatic achievements of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But the upcoming negotiations with the North, scheduled for March 30 and 31 in Beijing, will be not easy and will require a delicate balancing of Japan’s national and foreign interests, especially in light of its close ties with the United States.
Since Abe assumed the prime ministership for the second time in December 2012, Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul have worsened over territorial and historical issues, putting a damper on the bilateral alliance with Washington as well.
North Korea apparently knows well that Abe’s government, which has maintained relatively high public approval ratings due mainly to its economic policies, is in serious search of notable achievements on the political front to maintain its popularity.
A government official in Pyongyang who spoke on condition of anonymity has suggested that, under such circumstances, it is a good time to launch a charm offensive against Tokyo.
“Japan, which has claimed that our country is being isolated, is in reality without friends now,” the official said.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday during his visit to Bangladesh that Tokyo hopes Pyongyang will take a positive stance on a wide range of issues during the upcoming talks.
“We’d like to produce results at the meeting. We hope North Korea will take a forward-looking approach,” he said in Dhaka. “We are assuming that a broad range of topics will be discussed. Among them, the abduction issue, I believe, will be a major topic.”
The agreement was reached just days after a dramatic event involving the parents of abductee Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped by the North more than three decades ago.
For five days from March 10, the parents of Yokota, who went missing on her way home from school in Niigata Prefecture in 1977, when she was 13, were allowed by North Korea to secretly meet her daughter in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator.
Her parents, however, did not obtain any information on the fate of Megumi, who has become a symbol of the long-festering abduction issue at home and abroad. But their pleasure in meeting their 26-year-old granddaughter, openly expressed at a nationally televised news conference after they returned home, struck a chord with many people, and what they described as a “miracle” experience has been perceived in Japan as owing largely to Abe’s leadership.
Abe has long worked closely with the Yokotas and other families of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Abe, who accompanied then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on a historic visit to Pyongyang in 2002, has said that one of his most important political goals is to resolve the abduction issue. During their visit, North Korea admitted to having abducted 13 Japanese.
Pyongyang later allowed five to return to Japan but insisted the remaining eight, including Yokota, had already died. Japan strongly disagreed and pressed the North for credible evidence that was never provided. It also has a list of several more citizens it suspects were abducted by Pyongyang.
North Korea has repeatedly said the abduction issue has been settled.
Since then, there has been almost no significant progress on the issue, although it seems to be a given that bilateral relations cannot be improved without addressing it.
Still, Pyongyang will not compromise for nothing. Once government-to-government talks resume, it is almost certain that the North will call for economic assistance. North Korea, which needs to revive its struggling economy, has faced severe U.N. sanctions for refusing to give up its nuclear and missile development.
To begin with, it might ask Japan to ease its own sanctions. But any compromise from Japan has great potential for conflicting with the United States, which has kept a tough stance in place against North Korea.
While the menu of options appears limited — and Abe himself probably knows that the North’s willingness to negotiate with Japan is linked to its ultimate goal of re-engaging in diplomacy with the United States — Abe’s government will have to tread carefully in aiming for a breakthrough on the abduction issue.