NIIGATA – After years of being shut out from direct dealings with Pyongyang, it appears there is finally a window of opportunity for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make contact with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
With negotiations between North Korea, the United States and South Korea at an impasse, the market is now open for Abe and Kim to negotiate a deal: Kim needs economic support and Abe wants to resolve the long-standing issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.
Realistically, the best the two sides can achieve is a cash-for-abductee agreement with a joint statement that features conciliatory language welcoming the ongoing diplomatic efforts between North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea. Certainly, this presents a narrow zone of possible agreement, and any deal is likely to crumble if North Korea holds fast to its desire for lifting sanctions or if Japan tries too hard to address denuclearization.
Still, there is precedent for these two governments to engage on the abduction problem in isolation from other issues, and in pursuit of this legacy agenda item Abe will likely accept focus on that singular objective while continuing to support the U.S. and South Korea as they do the heavy lifting on other issues.
For North Korea to change course after its five-year hiatus on formal negotiations with Japan may seem unexpected, but the about-face is a product of circumstances. Kim had a lot riding on negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea, but the impasse in Hanoi has forced him to seek alternatives — his regime simply cannot afford to hedge its bets on the U.S. government suddenly finding flexibility on its own.
Sanctions continue to deplete North Korean coffers and limit resources despite the North Korean government’s best efforts to dismiss the impacts. Also, according to U.N. relief agencies, North Korea has suffered its worst harvest in a decade. With economic and humanitarian pressure mounting, Kim had to change course, which he did by ghosting inter-Korean initiatives, conducting publicized weapons tests and executing his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The goals of these actions are to increase urgency from U.S. and South Korean negotiators while finding workarounds on sanctions and gaining diplomatic support. Entertaining Abe’s call for engagement now represents a continuation of the Kim regime’s course change as it searches for near-term solutions to its diplomatic and economic problems.
Meanwhile, the force driving Abe toward engagement is the abduction issue. In the 1970s and ’80s, North Korean agents abducted Japanese citizens to employ them in specialized roles such as teaching Japanese language and culture. The Japanese government confirmed 17 victims of abduction (though it projects the actual number to be significantly higher) and has sought repatriation of all Japanese abductees.
In the early 2000s, the North Korean government admitted to the abduction of 13 of those 17 Japanese citizens and allowed five of them to return to Japan but claimed the others had either perished or never entered North Korea in the first place. The Japanese government disputes this and has continually requested a comprehensive, accurate investigation and resolution of this matter.
It cannot be overstated how important the abduction problem is to Abe. This has been a central focus of his political career and he has championed this cause since the 1990s. He personally negotiated with North Korea in Japan’s first summit with the Kim regime in 2002. Most of the members of Abe’s inner circle were colleagues in the party’s caucus on the abduction issue. All of Abe’s ministers of state for the abduction issue have been proteges and confidantes. Given his passion for this, Abe is likely to engage however possible to see resolution, and he has two precedents from which to operate.
The first is the September 2002 Pyongyang summit when Abe accompanied Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on a single-day trip to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Similar to present circumstances, Japan was concerned over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and wanted to settle the abduction issue. Meanwhile, North Korea was facing massive food shortages and was in need of economic aid and humanitarian assistance.
In that summit, the Japanese negotiating team succeeded in securing North Korea’s admission of the abductions, a promise to allow five abductees to return to Japan and a moratorium on missile testing. In exchange, Japan promised financial grants, low-interest loans and humanitarian assistance.
The two governments followed up with a second summit in 2004 that enabled the families of the five abductees to come to Japan in exchange for additional economic concessions, but talks soon broke down and North Korea abandoned its missile moratorium in July 2006.
The second precedent includes the 2014 working-level negotiations that took place between the Japanese and North Korean governments. The Abe administration shepherded five rounds of diplomatic talks with North Korea during that time, all while Kim Jong Un was in power. The two sides reached an agreement in 2014 that Japan would lift unilateral measures against North Korea in exchange for investigation into and resolution of the abduction issue. Subsequent meetings produced no substantive results despite Japanese attempts to incentivize progress. When the Kim regime began ramping up provocations, the North Korean government abandoned meetings on the abduction issue altogether.
These precedents offered three lessons for Abe: First, a cash-for-abductees deal is possible. Second, any deal with North Korea on abductees that includes broader security interests is bound to deteriorate in the long term if pressure is not sustained. Third, summit-level meetings yielded demonstrable progress while working-level talks did not. These lessons are informing Abe’s diplomatic outreach now.
A final issue at play is that of constraints on each side. Although Kim may want it, Abe does not have the power to lift U.N. sanctions unilaterally. More importantly, based on past experiences in negotiating with the Kim regime, Abe will not want to disrupt the U.N. sanctions regime until there are verifiable steps toward denuclearization anyway. For Kim, any negotiations with Abe will have to avoid clear discussions of denuclearization.
Denuclearization is the primary object for the Trump administration, and Kim will not negotiate away his leverage against the U.S. government for any economic concessions he could potentially gain from Japan. Also of note, there is precedent for discussion of a formal moratorium on missile testing, but the Kim regime will be loathe to implement anything that reduces its options for ratcheting up pressure against the U.S. and South Korea.
Given the narrow zone of possible agreement and constraints on both sides, a Japan-North Korea summit is not a foregone conclusion. Much work will be necessary to establish reasonable expectations from both sides. Still, there are indications that the market is open. Japan will now have to use its Beijing channel for diplomatic communications to lay the ground work for formal engagement at higher levels. If the two sides can convince one another that an agreement is within the realm of the possible, the world will watch Abe make his next trip to Pyongyang in the near future.
Based in Niigata, Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and a Ph.D. candidate at the International University of Japan. Previously, he was the deputy chief of government relations at headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan, and served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.