Japan brings North back to bargaining table

Tokyo's strategy in denuclearization talks puts ball in Pyongyang's court, but risks still loom for Japan-U.S. ties


In-mid April, a senior Foreign Ministry official in charge of Asian affairs looked confident. Although bilateral talks with North Korea had been suspended for more than half a year, the official predicted Pyongyang would have no choice but to come back to the bargaining table to discuss the abduction issue.

“Now we are creating an environment where the North will have no choice but to respond” to Japan’s demand to resume bilateral talks, the official said.

Specifically, the United Stated and China were jointly putting pressure on the North to resume talks with Japan, particularly over key issues, like the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.

The prediction came true this week as Pyongyang made an about-face and pledged to start a “reinvestigation” of the abduction cases, which it had long considered closed.

Indeed, experts said the North had no choice but to resume bilateral talks with Japan because the six-party talks on denuclearizing the North were entering a new stage.

“It’s clear. Pyongyang has changed its position because it wanted to make progress in its relations with the United States,” said Shunji Hiraiwa, a Korean-affairs expert and professor at University of Shizuoka.

The U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea are jointly holding talks with the North to terminate Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development programs.

The North is trying hard to get the U.S. to remove it from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states and eventually normalize bilateral ties in return for renouncing its nuclear programs.

Meanwhile, the U.S. was pressuring the North to address the abductions with Japan because it knew it would need Tokyo’s help in providing economic assistance to the North in the next stage of the six-party talks, Hiraiwa said.

The abduction issue is an emotional one for the Japanese, and its resolution is an absolute prerequisite for extending any substantial assistance to the North.

Tokyo has also strongly urged Washington not to remove the North from the terror list unless substantial progress is made on the abduction issue, as was strongly requested by families of the abductees.

“The North should have understood that the six-party talks wouldn’t progress without making progress in the Japanese-North Korean relationship. To terminate the plutonium program of the North, energy and economic assistance from Japan is needed,” said professor Masao Okonogi of Keio University.

“The six-party talks and Japan-North Korea talks are like a simultaneous equation. With no progress in one, there will be progress in the other either,” he said.

But how much real progress will be made on the abduction issue still remains to be seen. Japan has demanded that all surviving abductees be returned to Japan, while the North has insisted that all of them — except for the five who were returned in 2002 — either died or never entered the country in the first place.

Hajime Izumi, another professor at University of Shizuoka, said Pyongyang will not make a substantial concessions unless it is convinced that it will lead to eventual normalization of its relationship with Japan and result in economic assistance to the North.

“Pyongyang is not sure of how long the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will last,” Izumi said.

Hiraiwa also warned that Japan could soon find itself in a dilemma, caught between Washington’s diplomatic stance toward the North and Japan’s position on the abduction issue.

The top priority of the U.S. is denuclearizing North Korea, not finding Japan’s abductees, Hiraiwa said. Japan could continue to hamper the six-party talks by sticking to its demands on the abduction issue. At the same time, however, any easy concession to the North could end up dealing a serious political blow to the Japanese government, Hiraiwa said.

Okonogi pointed out that both Pyongyang and Tokyo appeared to be extremely cautious in advancing during the talks. North Korea only promised to restart its “investigation” into the abductions, while Tokyo only lifted some minor economic sanctions, such as bans on chartered flights and general travel between the two countries.

Still, Okonogi argued that the progress is meaningful.

The two countries have established their first precedent for making simultaneous ction-to-action concessions, he said. It means when one country makes a concession, the other should reciprocate at the same time as a package, he said.

“This is the negotiation method adopted between the U.S. and North Korea. Japan and the North are trying to follow the same pattern in their bilateral negotiations,” he said.

Trilateral summit

The foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea agreed Saturday to strengthen their cooperation in pushing for the denuclearization of North Korea, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said the same day. The three also agreed to arrange a summit of their leaders in September in Tokyo, Komura said.