North Korea needs to follow through on its recent pledge to reinvestigate the fate of Japanese nationals kidnapped by agents of the reclusive state decades ago now that Japan has lifted some of its economic sanctions on the country.
Pyongyang says it has launched a special panel with the power to investigate all of its state organs. It now has to match its words with a credible and sincere probe into the issue that has, for more than a decade, stood in the way of normalizing bilateral ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
The government on Friday took steps to lift the restrictions on travel between Japan and North Korea, halt the reporting requirements on cash remittances to North Korea, and permit the entry of some North Korean ships into Japanese ports for humanitarian purposes in response to the moves by Pyongyang to set up the investigation committee.
A senior member of the National Defense Commission is to head the panel, bringing it under direct control of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The 30-member panel will reportedly include senior officials of the Ministry of State Security, which is believed to hold information about the kidnapped Japanese. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his administration is convinced that “an unprecedented scheme” led by organs “that can make state-level decisions” has been established by North Korea for the investigation.
North Korea admitted in 2002 that its agents abducted more than a dozen Japanese in the 1970s and ’80s. Although five of them were sent back to Japan in 2002, Pyongyang has insisted that the others have either died or killed themselves — an account that Tokyo has refused to accept.
Two years later, then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il promised to look again into the fate of the abducted Japanese, but the subsequent explanations given by Pyongyang were not backed by credible evidence. In 2008, North Korea said it would reinvestigate the matter in exchange for Japan’s lifting some of its economic sanctions, but the promised probe was never carried out. Pyongyang had insisted in recent years that the abduction issue had been settled.
The makeup of the new investigation panel suggests that the North Korean regime is more serious this time about resolving the abduction issue with Japan. When North Korea last probed the fate of the abductees — in 2004 — it reportedly told Japan that the people tasked with the investigation did not have authority to probe the country’s special organs that had been involved in the kidnappings.
The fact that the investigation panel is led by a senior official from the National Defense Commission, which is headed by Kim Jong Un himself, may indicate that the probe will proceed under Kim’s direct control.
North Korea has agreed to reinvestigate the fate of the abductees at a time when its isolation in the international community is deepening because of its nuclear weapons and missile development programs. Even its relations with China, its closest ally and longtime patron, are sagging as Beijing moves closer to South Korea.
On the same day that Japan announced a partial lifting of the sanctions, Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting Seoul for talks with President Park Geun-hye, thus becoming the first Chinese leader to visit South Korea before visiting North Korea. It is speculated that Kim is seeking a breakthrough in relations with Japan by offering the prospect of progress in resolving the abduction issue.
The government’s move to lift the sanctions — even before North Korea’s reinvestigation has produced any results — was deemed necessary to get the process moving forward. The government now needs to keep close watch on whether the probe will actually show meaningful results.
The government also needs to make sure that its latest dealings with North Korea do not cause a crack in the international resolve to continue pressure on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear weapons and missile development.
Japan must keep the United States and South Korea updated on developments with the North, and make it clear to North Korea that it will be difficult for bilateral relations to advance in a manner leading to normalization of ties unless it gives up its nuclear ambitions and missile programs.