The ghosts that haunt Japan’s North Korea policy

Japan needs a new policy to confront its challenges and ensure its interests are heard

Lloyd Rhodes

Society and culture, International relations | East Asia

15 November 2018

Japan risks undermining its interests in denuclearisation if it gets carried away with its stance on North Korean abductions, writes Lloyd Rhodes.

On 15 November 1977, Megumi Yokota, “a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl” was abducted by North Korean agents. She was returning home from badminton practice in the coastal prefecture of Niigata.

Her family never saw her again.

Megumi’s story is just one among hundreds of potential cases of North Korean abductions, an issue which strongly resonates in the wider Japanese public. Since North Korea’s disclosure of its abduction of Japanese citizens in August 2002, the Japanese public have taken an active interest in the topic.

This has also coincided with an increase in hostile attitudes towards North Korea. Following the North’s revelations in 2002, Japanese citizens’ dislike towards the country rose by 20 percentage points and has consistently polled above 80 per cent ever since.

The Japanese government has acknowledged the public’s outrage and emotional investment by making it the main objective of its North Korea policy. It has tied this issue to the larger and more consequential international problem of denuclearisation, by constructing both issues as threats to Japan’s sovereignty and its national security.

Such a policy was reaffirmed by Foreign Minister Taro Kono at the United Nations Security Council last year when he stated that “the comprehensive resolution of the abductions issue and the nuclear and missile issues is the only way… to maintain international peace and security”.

However, Japan’s decision has hindered its ability to negotiate with North Korea and achieve its policy objectives. North Korea considers the abduction issue to be resolved following the repatriation of five abductees and the admission that eight others had died in the mid-2000s.

More on this: Podcast | Reunifying Korea: a split of opinion

Japan, however, has long suspected that North Korea continues to withhold information on the whereabouts of at least four other abductees who remain unaccounted for. It argues that this issue is still unresolved and has demanded full explanations and the return of all citizens. These sharp differences have prevented the two sides from negotiating other important matters such as denuclearisation, missile testing and economic cooperation.

Japan’s insistence on addressing the abduction issue as a precondition to discussing other problem areas has had the unintended consequence of marginalising it from multilateral negotiations with North Korea and with its regional partners.

During the Six-Party talks, a multilateral attempt to solve the nuclear issue, Japan insisted that the abduction issue was on the negotiating table and that economic assistance would not be provided until the issue was solved. This provoked South Korea to accuse Japan of ‘hijacking’ the forum’s agenda and ‘jeopardising efforts to denuclearize (sic) North Korea.’ While the United States showed concern for the abduction issue, it stated that such an issue would ‘not block a nuclear deal’.

Such marginalisation appears to be occurring again following recent improvements in North Korea-South Korea and North Korea-US relations. Japan’s continued emphasis on abduction means it occupies no role in the current negotiations. The risk of the US and South Korea reaching a deal with North Korea that does not address Japan’s interests is becoming a major concern.

Japan has been forced to instead rely on third parties such as South Korea and the US to pursue its policy objectives. These third parties have at times proven to be unwilling to advance Japan’s policy agenda. The Trump administration’s decision to halt joint military exercises with South Korea following the Singapore summit, without consultation with Japan, has stoked “anxieties” over US commitment.

In the rapidly changing environment of Northeast Asia, Japan’s North Korea policy has proven untenable. While there is talk of a North Korea-Japan summit in the near future, such a forum will achieve little if Japan continues to abide by its current strategy.

Japan needs a new policy to confront its challenges and ensure its interests are heard. It must work towards a common goal with its regional allies instead of acting unilaterally and must show flexibility in its negotiating strategy. The abduction issue is a major concern domestically, but the nuclear issue is a far more urgent threat, not just for Japan but for the security of the region.

The stakes are high, and if Japan continues to be unaccommodating, it risks undermining efforts to solve the denuclearisation issue and advance the region’s prosperity.


Photo: President Barack Obama meets with the family of Megumi Yokota, a 13 year-old Japanese student abducted by a North Korea in 1977

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