“Heinous devils.” “Narrow-minded guys of an island nation.” “Island barbarians, the sworn enemy of the Korean nation.” “A matchless political dwarf.” “A burglar that historically inflicted wars and misfortune and pain of colonial rule upon Korea.”
As evidenced by its harsh characterizations of Japan, North Korea’s state-run news wire spews vitriol like none other. But the Korean Central News Agency has recently taken a conspicuously muted approach to the United States, and to a lesser extent South Korea, as negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs continue.
Now, it has turned its sights on a new, but predictable foil — its former colonial master, Japan.
In the wake of the landmark June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore — at which Trump promised the North “security guarantees” in exchange for Kim committing to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — KCNA has released no critical commentaries or stories about the United States.
It has also shied away from attacking liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in directly, instead blasting “authorities” in the country or ripping into the regime of Moon’s ousted predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and other conservative politicians.
The continued vilification of Japan has filled this vacuum, rising to levels unseen in recent months. The near-daily rhetorical attacks on and criticisms of Tokyo amounted to a total of 29 dispatches in the 31 days of July — nearly double the 15 in the month prior, according to a tally by The Japan Times. Of the 15 in June, 11 came in the 18 days following the Singapore summit. Typically, KCNA has released dispatches that could be considered critical at a low-to-mid-teens clip each month, including 15 in May and 12 in April.
Japan, which colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, has long been a favorite boogeyman of the North. Its atrocities during this period, coupled with North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s purported heroic struggles against Imperial Japan, form the ideological foundation of the country and the political legitimacy of the Kim dynasty, experts say.
“Japan is the original enemy of the Korean people, and even while the U.S. eventually became an enemy, vilification of Japan never really went away in the North,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and North Korea expert who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
In its rhetoric, commentaries and criticisms out of Pyongyang have routinely blasted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration for using the North Korean nuclear threat as a “pretext” for rearming and becoming a “military giant.” It has also castigated Tokyo for its hard-line stance on denuclearization and sanctions amid the easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo, state media said Tuesday, “is persistently crying out” about the North Korean ” ‘threat’ in defiance of the changed situation.”
On July 11, it lambasted Abe by name, describing him as “the kingpin of corruption” over his alleged roles in two graft scandals that had in recent months pulled down his approval ratings, and for allegedly using the North Korean nuclear crisis to deflect attention from these scandals. The following week, it condemned Foreign Minister Taro Kono as a “political charlatan who never knows what to do,” after the top Japanese diplomat suggested that Tokyo would be willing to shoulder the costs of any inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
So why step up its fiery bluster now? Aside from the need for a rhetorical foil or external enemy, there are also likely important ulterior motives at play.
“Having tamed Seoul and Washington this year with its new sunny disposition, and thereby having ‘reaffirmed’ its relations with Beijing and Moscow, it’s now time to work on Japan, by far the biggest potential cash cow of any state or international organization,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“Historical memory,” Lee added, “is a staple of North Korea’s state indoctrination and a ‘blue-chip stock’ for reaping tens of billions of dollars once the two nations normalize diplomatic relations.”
Tokyo, which does not have formal diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, currently appears isolated amid the high-stakes U.S.-North Korean rapprochement, after months of being one of the most vociferous proponents of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy toward the North.
Kim is due much of the credit for this reversal, overseeing a dramatic shift in his country’s foreign dealings since orchestrating a “charm offensive” earlier this year that resulted in widely anticipated meetings with the Chinese and South Korean leaders and culminated in the summit with Trump.
With these three key nations out of the way, Kim may now be turning his attention to Japan.
And Abe, who has focused intensely on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s and ’80s and who had ruled out “dialogue for the sake of dialogue,” appears more eager than ever to meet with Kim in the wake of the fanfare of the Singapore summit and Tokyo’s resulting isolation on the issue — though Japanese officials have tried to throw cold water on media speculation of a possible meeting.
Japan has pledged to normalize bilateral ties with the North and extend “economic assistance” to it if the nuclear, ballistic missile and abduction issues are all resolved. Full-blown normalization between Japan and North Korea would ultimately be comparable to the 1965 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo to re-establish diplomatic ties. That deal saw Seoul receive some $800 million in economic assistance.
By some projections, this could deliver a compensation package to the North today of anywhere between $5 billion (¥560 billion) and $20 billion (¥2.2 trillion) — a sizable amount for the relatively weak North Korean economy.
And with Trump noting pointedly that Japan and others in Asia — not the United States — would cover the cost of economic aid, saying “that’s their neighborhood,” there is a strong chance that Washington will ask Tokyo to pony up.
“Pyongyang has various strategies working at the moment, beginning with knowledge that Japan will do what Washington asks, and if it is $20 billion, then it is $20 billion,” said Alexis Dudden, a professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in the modern history of Japan and Korea. “In short, Pyongyang knows that Washington will ask Japan to front much of the cash needed to begin the economic component of the Trump administration’s visions for North Korea.”
But Jackson, the former Defense Department official, said that Pyongyang’s desire to portray Japan as a threat, for political solidarity and regime control, could outweigh the benefits of having an improved relationship with Tokyo.
“In principle, Japanese development assistance and investment would be an attractive reason to improve relations, but even that would directly challenge the juche (self-reliance) ethos of North Korean strategic culture,” he said. “North Korea’s entire history has been one of seeking stubborn independence and charting their own path, even when extracting assistance and resources from outside powers.”
Beyond economics, Kim does have incentive to at least keep Japan in its crosshairs.
“Criticizing Japan’s wartime past raises the stakes, and there is little downside given that so many others in Asia have similar memories to share,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Additionally, making Japan the odd man out creates two opportunities for Kim.
“One, it tests the U.S. on its commitments to Tokyo, and two, it makes Tokyo more eager for its own summit with Kim,” she said. “Putting Abe on the back foot also may be a bit of payback for the strong Japanese stance on the maximum pressure strategy.”
But even if the North succeeds in its apparent strategy to bring Japan to the negotiating table, there is no guarantee of an amicable relationship akin to the way it has handled the U.S. and South Korea, the Fletcher School’s Lee said.
“North Korea will keep up the pressure on Japan even as the two sides begin ‘breakthrough talks,’ ” Lee said. “Why? The best way to ‘improve relations’ is by much stick, followed by the occasional carrot.”