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Lessons from history for abduction policy

by Robert Dujarric

To the delight of the Aso administration, Hillary Clinton not only first made Japan her first foreign visit as U.S. secretary of state, but she met with families of Japanese abducted by North Korea. Unfortunately, by giving the impression that she agrees with Japan, her gesture may prevent a much-needed recalibrating of Tokyo’s North Korea policy. Looking at a few similar cases will demonstrate why a focus on abductions is detrimental to Japan’s national interest.

In November 1979, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Iranian revolutionaries took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, detaining its diplomats. Until they were freed in January 1981, their fate monopolized much of the attention of the U.S. government and public to the detriment of critical strategic considerations.

Under President Ronald Reagan, efforts to free a few Americans held in Lebanon by militants with Iranian connections ended in a complex and failed arms-for-hostage scandal known as Iran-Contra. In 2006, Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon succeed in capturing two Israeli soldiers. As a result, Israel went to war with the Shiite guerrillas; a conflict that ended in a humiliating fiasco without rescuing the two young servicemen.

No two events are totally similar, but we can nevertheless draw a few lessons that are applicable to Japan.

The first one is that strategy must not be dictated by a single issue without thinking of the broader implications. While the American diplomats were held in captivity, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iran-Iraq war were redrawing the geopolitical map of Southwest Asia. During Reagan’s tenure in the White House, far more significant events were happening in the Middle East than the continued incarceration of Americans by hostile militias in Lebanon.

In 2006, when the Israeli Air Force launched its air attacks on Hezbollah, there was far more at stake for Israel than the fate of its two conscripts.

The second one is that governments must moderate rather than exacerbate public emotions. In their brilliant book, “34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon,” Amos Harel and Avi Issarcharoff show how then-Prime Minister Elmud Olmert’s grandstanding on freeing the two soldiers narrowed Israel’s options to the detriment of its own interests.

The third point to remember is that there are many ways to free hostages and none are applicable to all cases. Under some circumstances, military operations offer the best solution; in others, a negotiated deal with no winners or losers solves the problem. In some instances, hostages are freed in exchange for a ransom (monetary or in exchange for prisoners).

All these “lessons” are applicable today. First, the most crucial issue for Japan regarding North Korea is not the abductees. Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons program are more significant. Equally, and probably even more vital for Japan, is the need to actively participate in all discussions and negotiations involving North Korea to allow Tokyo to shape the diplomatic and security agenda with Washington, Beijing and Seoul.

Second, the more the government emphasizes this tragedy in its public pronouncements, the fewer options are left for Japanese strategy. Though Clinton conformed to Japan’s wishes in public, the reality is that other issues, not the abductees, are what drives American policy and that of every other nation involved in the North Korea question.

Third, the sad truth is that a positive outcome to the abductions will be difficult. Many of the victims may have already died; others may know things (such as the faces of the agents they helped teach Japanese), which would preclude the Kim regime from ever releasing them.

Consequently, Tokyo now faces a choice: It can either continue its noble but quixotic priority on the abduction question or re-emphasize Japan’s strategic interests.

Robert Dujarric (robertdujarric@gmail.com) is the director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies (ICJS) Temple University, Japan Campus.