Would North Korea be willing to take the stick for a carrot?
Japan is trying to determine whether North Korea would be willing to accept its demand to resolve the abduction issue — the stick — and ditch its nuclear and missile programs, which Tokyo claims are a prerequisite to normalizing diplomatic ties, in return for economic assistance — the carrot.
Verbal exchanges are already intensifying between the two countries.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on television Friday that he is open to holding talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un only if that would lead to the settlement of the abduction issue.
“I will not just sit and talk for nothing,” he said. “There is no way we will provide major economic assistance without resolving the abduction issue.”
But on Saturday, North Korea’s state news agency slammed Japan for insisting on returning abductees as a condition for normalizing ties, accusing it of going “against the trend” toward the “building of a bright future” in the run-up to an unprecedented summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim.
“The reactionaries of Japan are hyping the ‘issue of abduction’ which had already been settled,” KCNA said in a commentary. “This is just a mean and foolish behavior to stem the trend of peace on the Korean peninsula,” it added.
Abe has repeatedly insisted that the return of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents decades ago must be achieved along with the North’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs before a settlement can be reached. He has pressed Trump to raise the issue at his summit with Kim.
Tokyo says at least 17 of its citizens were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Five were returned in 2002, but it is not satisfied with North Korea’s explanations about the fate of the others.
North Korea pledged to reopen an investigation into the whereabouts of any remaining Japanese abductees in 2014.
But relations between Japan and North Korea were strained later by a series of nuclear weapons and missile tests by Pyongyang. The reinvestigation was called off in 2016.
Even if the two countries resume dialogue, North Korea may not provide Japan with accurate information on the fate of any abductees. Furthermore, Pyongyang could demand that Tokyo give something in return, such as the lifting of economic sanctions, in exchange for bits and pieces of information on the abductions.
Japan will explore the possibility of holding dialogue with North Korea through such diplomatic channels as its embassy in Beijing.
At the same time, Japan will continue to ask countries such as the United States, South Korea and China for cooperation in bringing about dialogue with North Korea.
Abe has sought to strengthen ties with Trump in a bid to ensure his concerns about the abductees and any missiles that could threaten Japan are addressed.
Japan hopes that the Trump-Kim meeting will lead to Japanese-North Korean dialogue.
Japanese government sources said Sunday that Abe and Trump are likely to meet twice in a span of a week before and right after the June 12 Trump-Kim summit. Japan will also dispatch officials to Singapore for the summit to gather information, they said.
But a Japanese government source said it is “uncertain how seriously Trump will act on behalf of Japan” because of his “America First” policy.