INSIGHT: Abe takes diplomatic risk on North Korea abduction issue

May 30, 2014

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking a big diplomatic gamble with the Japan-North Korea agreement on the abduction issue, largely because success hinges on the actions of an international wild card.

Abe has long taken a hard-line stance against North Korea and pushed for a resolution of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s.

North Korea, aware of Abe’s stand, likely felt that his Cabinet’s high support ratings would enable him to convince the families of the abductees and the general public about making a deal with the belligerent country.

The agreement gives Abe a chance to fulfill a long-held goal and score domestic points.

But North Korea, which has indicated a desire to emerge from its international isolation, is desperate to revive its moribund economy. Under the agreement, Japan will lift sanctions against Pyongyang, regardless of the uncertainties of what the reinvestigation will produce concerning 12 missing Japanese listed by Tokyo as abducted by North Korea.

Such moves by Japan could face the scorn of other countries more concerned about dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

To start with, many difficult issues surround North Korea’s promised new investigation into the abduction issue.

The Japanese government has never been involved in past investigations. And Pyongyang may not reveal all information related to the abductees because the North Korean government agencies suspected of undertaking the abductions are highly secretive bodies.

Some Japanese government officials are optimistic for a breakthrough.

“We have obtained highly reliable information that several of the abductees are still alive,” an official involved in intelligence said.

But Japan has not obtained any physical evidence to back that claim.

Economic sanctions slapped on North Korea during Abe’s first stint as prime minister led to a weakening of Japan’s intelligence-gathering capabilities on the hermit nation.

When then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang in 2002, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made the stunning admission that his country had abducted Japanese nationals. That meeting led to the repatriation of five abductees a month later.

Because of that background, North Korea wants the latest agreement to bring the final curtain down on the issue.

The Abe administration is considering the possibility of a summit with North Korea. But the government has no assurances that Pyongyang will provide the results of its reinvestigation before such a meeting.

Before the latest agreement, Pyongyang insisted that the abduction issue had been resolved. It is unclear what level of information would now be required to satisfy the Japanese side.

Abe and the abductees’ families want their loved ones returned or closure on the cases. Pyongyang wants money.

For North Korea, the abduction issue “is not a humanitarian issue, but the most important diplomatic card it holds for extracting economic assistance from Japan,” a Japanese government source has said.

There is a strong possibility that North Korea could ask for economic assistance on a scale that would only be possible if the two nations were moving toward restoring diplomatic relations. Such assistance could be requested if the abduction issue was resolved but with no progress on dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

The agreement announced May 29 includes the provision that North Korea will establish a “special investigation committee.” Sources said that committee could be set up in about three weeks.

However, the agreement does not mention Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Japan and North Korea suspended talks after North Korea launched a ballistic missile in late 2012. Tokyo has still not established a clear policy of what it would do should Pyongyang make another military provocation.

North Korea has, in fact, been threatening to conduct a nuclear test since late April, leading to increased international tension.

The country’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, has been described by the international community as a cruel dictator. And China, long considered North Korea’s strongest backer, has made no moves to hold a summit with Kim Jong Un.

The current situation would indicate that now is an ideal time to build a containment net around North Korea that the United States has long sought.

But the rapid moves of the Abe administration to improve ties with North Korea are going in the opposite direction. The agreement could further international distrust of Japanese diplomacy, particularly if Japan lifts its sanctions with no tangible results in the investigation.

Japan has recently made efforts to maintain close ties with Russia even as criticism increased in the West over Moscow’s strong-armed tactics directed at Ukraine.

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent
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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responds to reporters' questions on May 30 before leaving for Singapore. (Hiroki Endo)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responds to reporters' questions on May 30 before leaving for Singapore. (Hiroki Endo)

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responds to reporters' questions on May 30 before leaving for Singapore. (Hiroki Endo)

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