Over the past few weeks, the issue of North Korean abductions has once again earned the spotlight in Japanese politics. In a U.N. meeting, the Japanese delegate called on the North Korean representative to work with Japan in addressing "abductions and forced disappearances." Later, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attended the memorial service of Shigeru Yokota, father of a juvenile abductee and long-time advocate for resolution of the abduction issue. There, Suga renewed his pledge to make a breakthrough with North Korea — an objective he reiterated once again in his first policy speech to the Diet a few days ago.

But does this mean anything? Can Suga actually make progress on the abduction issue, and what does this portend for Japan-North Korea relations?

A quick review of the issue and precedent is helpful here.

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 abducting 13 of the 17 Japan identified. North Korean authorities 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 investigation and resolution of this matter.

The Japanese and North Korean governments have engaged formally on the abduction issue several times in the past two decades. The topic was raised during summit-level negotiations in 2002 and 2004, respectively, which yielded the return of the five abductees in exchange for economic concessions.

After a decade-long hiatus, negotiations resumed at the working level in 2014 with five rounds of negotiations. The outcome of those was an agreement for Japan to lift unilateral sanctions against North Korea in exchange for progress on the abduction issue. The North Korean side abandoned further engagements, asserting that the matter was concluded as the country then proceeded to ramp up its nuclear and missile testing activities.

Although conditions are different now than in 2014, the North Korean government has continued to reiterate its position that the abduction issue is completely resolved. To recant this position now presents a hazard to the Kim Jong Un regime’s reputation on the world stage and threatens to amplify North Korea’s already infamous standing among human rights violators. The regime will be loath to accept these costs, even if presented with Japanese financial compensation.

Despite this, a key principle in negotiation is "no always, no never," meaning that nothing is guaranteed and nothing should be ruled out. There is always a chance for a deal, even though it looks exceedingly slim at this point for Japan and North Korea.

Once North Korea begins relaxing its draconian COVID-19 restrictions to allow for expanded foreign contact, there exists a narrow zone of possible agreement between Japan and North Korea predicated on a ‘cash-for-abductee’ approach. This is only if the two parties can overcome the other challenges at play.

One challenge is the milieu of other interests. For example, Tokyo still wants to address North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities, while Pyongyang aims to maintain regime prestige, especially as the government seeks to demonstrate good governance amidst a pandemic, international sanctions, and natural disasters that affected the country this year. These and other competing interests complicate any potential negotiations on the abduction issue.

Another challenge is trying to find an agreement that does not violate U.N. sanctions. North Korea would assuredly seek monetary compensation and aid for any movement on the abduction issue, but sanctions under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 prohibit any delivery of goods or money which could be funneled into the country's nuclear or missile programs. This narrows the options available at the negotiating table.

These challenges are notable but will not stop the Suga government from pursuing resolution of the abduction issue. From the Japanese perspective, there are three factors driving this continued effort, regardless of the sticking points.

First, there is the human factor. There are families seeking closure, and their shared stories will continue to provide compelling narratives in Japanese media. As long as the public maintains issue attention, it will contribute to the next factor.

The second is the political factor. In 1998, smaller activist groups came together to form the Sukuukai, or “National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea.” Bolstered by media attention on the abduction issue, the special interest group has since expanded to 36 chapters across Japan and gained formal support from six political parties comprising over 90 percent of sitting Diet members. Of note, in 2005 those politicians all supported a precondition that Japan would not normalize ties with North Korea until the abduction issue was resolved.

The fact that one of the staunchest supporters of the Sukuukai, Shinzo Abe, happened to serve as prime minister for almost nine of the past twenty years has contributed to the political energy behind the abduction issue. He had personally been involved in the 2002 and 2004 summits in Pyongyang and maintained this policy agenda item across his entire two tenures as prime minister.

Despite Abe’s departure, Suga comes in having served as the minister in charge of the abduction issue while concurrently acting as the chief Cabinet secretary. Thus, from an issue attention and policy platform perspective, the abduction issue will not fall off the Japanese political agenda anytime soon.

The third factor is practical in nature. For Japanese government officials, if North Korea is unwilling to commit to resolution of illicit acts perpetrated forty years ago, how can they expect North Korean commitment on denuclearization or other issues that have a direct impact on security and national survival in the present day? The fact remains that the abduction issue is a litmus test for commitment.

Given all this, from a negotiating perspective, there are a few key principles Japan must follow. The first is that Japanese officials must lay the groundwork for an implementable deal with North Korea. The Japanese government must determine what it would be willing to offer in exchange for progress on the abduction issue and ensure there are no legislative roadblocks to delivering those things if a deal were struck. It must go to the U.N. 1718 sanctions committee to gain an exemption that will allow for provision of financial concessions and aid on humanitarian grounds. Having actionable concessions in hand will be important for gaining North Korean reciprocity.

The second principle is keeping this issue out of the public eye until it is satisfactorily resolved. Given the public and political interest in this matter, the Japanese government will have to take strong measures to keep negotiations in back channels and to prevent leaks. If it comes to light that the Kim regime is loosening its position here, it will cause the North Korean government to shut off talks once again.

Finally, the Japanese government will have to keep this issue isolated from other negotiations. While it may seem attractive for Japan to enlist other government's support, adding more interests and tying the abduction issue to negotiations that may involve the denuclearization problem will only make progress more difficult to attain.

With the abduction issue continuing to inform the Suga administration's North Korea policy, the government must adjust its approach if it hopes for progress. Suga and his cohort must resist the urge to make a political spectacle of the abduction issue, focusing instead on no frills, transactional negotiations behind closed doors. Until then, this issue will remain a political narrative rather than a substantive policy objective.

Dr. Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

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