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Is Tokyo’s commitment to abduction issue a diplomatic stumbling block?

by Tomohiro Osaki and Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writers

As the world waited restlessly Tuesday for U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to emerge from their first-ever direct talks, and announce their progress — or the lack thereof — toward the prospect of denuclearization, Japan looked for signs that the two had addressed, however briefly, its “top priority” in their talks: the fate of 17 Japanese nationals kidnapped by the regime’s agents in 1970s and 80s.

Per the 2002 Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, Tokyo has long maintained that the abduction issue should be considered alongside the regime’s nuclear and missile development, which tends to get a higher profile on the international stage, citing “comprehensive” resolution of all these issues as a condition for normalizing ties with Pyongyang and providing the rogue state with economic aid.

But with the historic Trump-Kim summit now paving the way for the start of what promises to be a yearslong denuclearization process, Tokyo may sooner or later find itself under pressure from the global community — including its closest ally, the U.S. — to help finance the regime’s path toward modernization even without a breakthrough on the abduction issue.

Such a scenario, if realized, would beg the ultimate question: Would Abe stand firm to his assertion that the abductees must be repatriated before Japan can ever mete out funds, thereby potentially throwing cold water on international efforts toward Pyongyang’s denuclearization and risking alienation?

How Abe would act under such a scenario is open to debate so long as various factors remain unclear, such as whether — and how seriously — the North will commit itself to denuclearization.

But Japanese officials and experts say there is at least room for Tokyo to be flexible, and agree with the global community to lift sanctions against Pyongyang, lest it be seen as interfering with efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

A senior Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Japan could agree to the lifting of economic sanctions against the North Korean regime if “concrete actions” toward the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear programs are confirmed.

The view is echoed by another senior government official, who said that while Japan will continue to insist on the triple resolution of abduction, nuclear and missile problems, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that we refuse to do everything unless the abduction issue is resolved.”

“It’s diplomacy we’re talking about. It’s subject to variation,” he said.

Shortly before embarking on his meeting with Kim, Trump announced — in what was seen by many as a stunning policy shift — that he will retire the phrase “maximum pressure” that he had repeatedly talked up with Abe.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said that it’s “very much likely” that Japan will follow in the footsteps of the U.S. if the Trump administration, post-summit, moves toward easing sanctions in response to the North’s phased denuclearization — even without tangible progress on the return of abductees.

“What’s important to Japan is to remain in lockstep with Trump,” Watanabe said. “It won’t act in a way that will get in the way of the process of denuclearization.”

Such a conciliatory step toward Pyongyang may antagonize families here who have fought strenuously for the repatriation of their loved ones, but the government, he said, can explain to them that such flexibility “helps create an opportunity to have talks with North Korea and actually works in favor of the swift return” of abductees.

At the same time, however, experts say that Tokyo will likely remain uncompromising on its refusal to offer the regime substantial economic assistance until the very final stages of negotiations over abductees.

Repatriating abductees is a top priority for Abe, who played a pioneering role in highlighting the issue early in his career as a politician and served as one of the key Cabinet members who successfully negotiated the historic return of five abductees in 2002 under the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

His emphasis on the issue is widely believed to have helped him win his first term as prime minister in 2006. So maintaining a strong stance on this issue is still considered critically important for Abe.

For that reason Tokyo is likely to maintain a tough position until its negotiations over abduction issues reach a climax, experts say.

Under the 2002 Tokyo-Pyongyang declaration, Japan would extend economic assistance to the North if nuclear, missile and abduction issues are all resolved and the two countries normalize their bilateral relationship.

Experts say the amount of economic assistance to the North, if ever realized, is likely to be quite substantial because Japan normalized its post-colonial relations with South Korea in 1965 by extending massive amount of economic assistance to Seoul.

This envisioned economic assistance is considered Japan’s most powerful — and perhaps only — diplomatic leverage against North Korea.

“China and South Korea may bring them some cash, but Japan is the subject of North Korea’s highest expectations. They know that money comes from Japan based on the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration or in the form of post-war compensation,” said Kazuhiro Maeshima, professor of international relations at Sophia University in Tokyo.

The senior government official also said that “As long as the abduction issue continues to be ignored, we can’t take a step toward offering the North economic assistance or a large sum of investment.”

Tetsuo Kotani, associate professor of international relations at Meikai University, agrees.

“What North Korea is desperate for is assistance from Japan. Japan should stand strong, and say (economic assistance) is nonnegotiable” unless the abduction issue is resolved.

This is where Japan can adopt a bullish stance and have a realistic chance of eliciting details on the safety and whereabouts of abductees that the North has long refused to divulge, he said.

Japan, according to Kotani, should demand North Korea “tell the truth and explain everything if they expect some economic or technical assistance from Japan.”

“If the North is willing to answer, then that’s a sign that a Pyongyang-Tokyo summit should be considered.”

It also appears that under Abe, who has spent the better part of his political career calling for the return of the abductees and has even characterized the issue’s resolution as “more important than anything” in his recent policy speeches and Diet responses, Japan stands an even lower chance of backpedaling from its traditional hard-line policy on the abductions.

“Any of Prime Minister Abe’s predecessors would have said solving the abduction issue is important, yes, but it was never something they spent many years devoting themselves to,” said Matake Kamiya, a professor of international politics at the National Defense Academy.

“So a rethink of the traditional government policy may have been far easier under them, but Abe, having played a central role in this matter ever since he was a junior lawmaker, won’t easily change his attitude.”