A decade has passed since five Japanese abducted by North Korean agents were returned to Japan on Oct. 15, 2002. That event took place a month after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il held a summit that culminated in the signing of the Pyongyang Declaration in which Japan apologized for its colonial rule over Korea and North Korea apologized for its abductions of Japanese citizens.
After the two leaders held a second summit in May 2004, seven children of the abductees and an abductee’s spouse came to Japan. But since then no progress has been made on the abduction issue and North Korea’s treatment of it has been insincere, as shown by its unsubstantiated claims that some abductees are dead. Clearly Japan must rethink its traditional approach to the issue.
After North Korea carried out a nuclear-weapon test in 2006, Japan strengthened economic sanctions against it but this policy has borne no fruit. North Korea responded by increasing its trade with China, which in 2011 accounted for 90 percent the North’s total trade volume. And despite sanctions, Japanese products are available in Pyongyang via China or Southeast Asian countries.
North Korea seems to be laying the groundwork for economic reforms but will not be able to carry them out on its own and Pyongyang reportedly desires Japan’s long-term assistance. The Japanese government should skillfully play this economic card.
Mr. Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s No. 2 leader and chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, insisted in a recent interview with Kyodo News that the abduction issue has already been resolved. In the Pyongyang Declaration signed by Mr. Koizumi and Kim Jong Il on Sept. 17, 2002, Japan promised to provide economic assistance to North Korea when diplomatic relations are normalized. North Korea must realize that bilateral diplomatic ties will not be normalized until real progress toward a solution of the abduction issue is realized.
The Japanese and North Korean governments resumed low-level talks in August 2012 after a four year hiatus. Both sides must do their utmost to continue the talks. Without dialogue, no progress can be made in resolving the abduction issue.
Mr. Kim Yong Nam said that the “settlement of the past” is important in the two countries’ bilateral relations. But North Korea should realize that as long as it insists that the abduction issue has been resolved, Japan will not engage in talks on issues related to Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
For its part, Japan should make clear to North Korea what kinds of benefits it is ready to offer if the abduction issue is resolved. Both countries should follow the conciliatory spirit of the Pyongyang Declaration and spare no efforts toward achieving the kind of progress that will lead to the normalization of diplomatic ties.
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