WASHINGTON – The possibility of the next U.S. administration resuming talks with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs might reduce its incentives for reopening negotiations with Japan on the abduction issue, a U.S.-based Japanese expert on North Korean politics says.
Whoever wins Tuesday’s presidential election in the United States, the next administration is likely to try to move stalled relations with North Korea forward because President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” has been widely regarded as ineffective in curbing the North’s weapons development program, said Keio University associate professor Atsuhito Isozaki.
While Washington was waiting for Pyongyang to change its behavior under the pressure of sanctions, Pyongyang appears to have moved closer to building an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
This year alone, North Korea has carried out two nuclear tests and launched more than 20 ballistic missiles despite international condemnation.
In a recent interview in Washington, Isozaki voiced concern that if the U.S. and North Korea make progress on negotiations to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, the North may see few incentives to promote relations with Japan, especially regarding Tokyo’s demand that Pyongyang come clean on the fate of the Japanese its agents abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Isozaki, who is conducting sabbatical research at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, urged Japanese officials to closely coordinate with the next administration, to be led by either Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or her Republican rival Donald Trump, to make sure the abduction issue “will not be left behind.”
Isozaki has felt there is a “wide perception gap” between Tokyo and Washington on the abduction issue, saying the top priority of Japan’s North Korea policy does not seem to be widely shared by U.S. policymakers and experts.
“Here in Washington, we hear talk and analysis about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as its human rights situation, such as accounts of defectors from the North and abuses at the country’s political prison camps,” he said.
“But to my surprise, the abduction issue is hardly discussed despite the fact that it is a human rights issue and that Japan is a key U.S. ally.”
A Cabinet Office survey in January found that 83.5 percent of the public considers the abduction issue a major area of interest regarding North Korea. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the issue, which has prevented Tokyo and Pyongyang from normalizing diplomatic relations, is one of the priorities of his government.
Japan-North Korea ties have been in the doldrums since February, when Pyongyang suspended its “reinvestigation” into the abduction victims to protest the imposition by Tokyo of new sanctions following its fourth nuclear test and a test of long-range ballistic missile technology earlier in the year.
According to Isozaki, the next U.S. administration, whether Republican or Democratic, is expected to negotiate to contain the North’s weapons development programs with a hard-line stance involving firmer sanctions and possibly the option of a pre-emptive strike.
Halting such activities by the North would be an urgent task for the United States, especially when a Johns Hopkins University study, for example, says that North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons could grow to 100 by 2020 from 10 to 16 estimated in 2015.
However, Isozaki said he is not sure taking a tough posture would actually compel Pyongyang to hold credible talks with Washington, or whether China, the North’s main economic and diplomatic benefactor, would tolerate a potential preemptive strike against Pyongyang.
He predicted that rather than sticking to calls for denuclearizing North Korea, the next U.S. administration may pursue a more realistic approach, such as negotiating a cap on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities as suggested recently by National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
Such an approach, however, would risk recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, which the United States, Japan and South Korea have said they will never do.
It would be naive to think that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear arsenal, which it sees as vital for the regime’s survival, Isozaki said, quoting remarks by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the Japanese scholar said are “absolute” and “inviolable” in the country.
“Kim Jong Un has cited ‘a lesson from Middle East countries’ as a reason for possessing nuclear weapons,” he said. “This signals his determination that he will never make the same mistake as Libya whose regime was toppled by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces once it abandoned its nuclear development program through negotiations with the United States and Britain.”
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