The abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s is an issue that cannot be sidelined when Tokyo seeks to normalize relations with Pyongyang. The issue was raised by U.S. President Donald Trump in his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on Tuesday. That is a major step forward, but it is a problem that ultimately can only be resolved by Japan and North Korea. The government has reportedly begun exploring a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kim, possibly as early as this fall. Tokyo needs to devise a strategy on how to break the years of stalemate over the problem that, along with the development of nuclear weapons and missiles by the Kim regime, has to be resolved for relations with Pyongyang to move forward.
According to media reports on the summit, Trump, per Japan’s request, told Kim of Abe’s position that Japan would not provide economic aid to Pyongyang until the abduction issue is resolved and prodded the North Korean leader to take action. Kim reportedly did not react negatively.
In the 2002 summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang for the first time acknowledged and apologized for the kidnapping of more than a dozen Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, paving the way for the immediate return of five of the abductees, who were later reunited with their families. Regarding 12 other Japanese citizens that Tokyo says were abducted by North Korea, Pyongyang insists that eight of them died after being taken to North Korea and the remaining four had never entered the country — an account that the Japanese government has refused to accept.
Japan has demanded that North Korea return all the abductees to Japan, come clean on the relevant facts and hand over those directly responsible for the kidnappings. North Korea has, in turn, insisted for years that the abductions issue is already “resolved.” In an agreement reached between the two governments in 2014, North Korea promised to relaunch an investigation over the fate of the abductees, but talks over the issue went nowhere after Japan, along with other countries, stepped up sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches.
Abe raised the abduction issue in his talks with Trump just before the Singapore summit. The fact that Japan had to rely on the U.S. president to bring up the topic with North Korea testifies to its lack of direct communication with Pyongyang. Among the members of the now-dormant six-party talks that discussed North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs, only Japan has not had direct high-level contact with the North even as the international situation surrounding the country has rapidly developed since the beginning of the year, including its participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in February, Kim’s late April summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, his two trips to China for talks with President Xi Jinping, and this week’s summit with Trump.
It’s unclear whether North Korea has changed its position that the abduction issue with Japan has already been resolved. Kim, however, is said to have told Trump that he is open to meeting with Abe. The government is reportedly exploring a meeting between Abe and Kim in Vladivostok, to which they have both been invited by Russia to attend a regional economic forum gathering in September.
Following the Trump-Kim summit, Abe told reporters that Japan “is resolved to settle the (abduction issue) by directly facing up to North Korea.” The kidnapping of Japanese citizens is an issue that concern the nation’s sovereign rights. Japan needs to take the initiative for resolving the problem with North Korea. And time is not on its side to settle the issue given that many of the relatives of abductees, as well as the abductees themselves, are in their advancing years.
The government takes the position that Japan is seeking a comprehensive solution to the abduction issue and the nuclear and missile development programs by North Korea. When these problems are resolved, it will be ready to normalize relations and provide economic aid by settling its “unfortunate past” with the North based on the Pyongyang Declaration concluded by Koizumi and Kim Jong Il in 2002.
The government needs to devise a strategy for Japan to explore a settlement of the abductions issue while being proactively involved in the efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Closing the gap with North Korea over the abduction problem will not be easy, but at least the door of opportunity for doing so may now be ajar.