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Current Japan-North Korea Relations

By Atsuhito Isozaki

In a statement on November 7, Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for negotiations to normalize relations with Japan, swore at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had strongly condemned North Korea for its weapons testing using the words: “provocation,” “outrage,” “violation,” “abduction” and “pressure.” Song said, “Abe is unworthy as a human being,” and “Abe is a moron.” These are strong expressions compared with the tone of previous remarks from North Korea, and the Japanese government is expediting its analysis of the actual intentions behind the statement.

Ambassador Song is well known in Japan. Although he did not study in Japan, he is a professional diplomat who speaks fluent Japanese. He has worked actively since the start of the Japan-North Korea Normalization Talks in 1990 and has been the North Korean public contact and face of diplomacy with Japan for almost 30 years, having deep insights into Japanese politics and diplomacy. This is in contrast to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has difficulty training experts on North Korea, because it makes personnel changes every three years.

Song said, “If Abe is longing for the uneasiness and horror with which they trembled when something flew over Japan and tries to challenge us, our country will do what it wishes to do, indifferent to the island nation.” Japanese media suggested that North Korea might have fired long- and medium-range missiles and explained that the move was intended to keep Japan in check. Song also said, “Abe would be well-advised not to dream forever of crossing the threshold of Pyongyang.”

The prospects for U.S.-North Korea relations are also uncertain. As long as Kim Jong-un, chairman of the State Affairs Commission, makes comments such as, “We will wait for the United States to make a courageous decision until the end of the year,” the deadlock may be broken at least by the end of the year, depending on the reaction of President Trump.

Current Japan-North Korea relations are even more serious. In an exclusive interview with the Sankei, Japan’s most conservative newspaper, on May 1, Prime Minister Abe said he was eager to meet Chairman Kim without conditions. This marked a major policy shift for Abe, who strongly asserted, “We must hold talks that contribute to resolving the abduction issue.”

But Prime Minister Abe, a populist, cannot make a concrete compromise with North Korea considering the backlash from the Japanese public. Although six months have passed since he announced an unconditional dialogue with North Korea, there has been no information that bilateral relations are progressing behind closed doors. Pyongyang doubts whether Abe is trying to maintain power using these methods.

Every country has its order of priority on the diplomatic agenda. Many years have passed since Japan set the North Korean question, which is focused on abduction, nuclear weapons and missiles, as the most important diplomatic priority issue. The abduction issue has been of interest to the Japanese people since 1997, when it was revealed that a Japanese junior high school girl had been abducted by a North Korean agent in 1977, the nuclear weapons issue since 2006, when North Korea moved forward with its first nuclear test, and the missile issue since 1998, when Taepodong flew over Japan. Japanese society has been concerned about the North Korean question for more than 20 years.

It is easy to criticize North Korea, but few previous administrations faced the country with a serious and sincere attitude to solving issues. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who realized the first Japan-North Korea Summit in 2002 and successfully won back five Japanese abductees, is an exception. Koizumi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” toward the people of North Korea for Japan’s past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and promised to normalize bilateral diplomatic relations and provide economic cooperation, such as grants, in line with that policy. At the time, the Japanese and North Korean leaders made a compromise to obtain mutually beneficial results.

In diplomacy, repeating a one-sided argument results in stalemate. Currently, Tokyo continues to appeal to the importance of the abduction issue at home and abroad, injecting a huge amount of the budget into the campaign. However, Japan must also be ready to face North Korea to protect the lives and human rights of Japanese nationals.

(Atsuhito Isozaki is Associate Professor at Keio University.)

 

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