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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (September 14, 2005)

Japanese Goals at the Six-Party Talks: A Reassessment

Kazuyo Kato (Research Associate at the International Security Program of CSIS) and Phillip Y. Lipscy (Associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs)

In the just-resumed fourth round of Six-Party Talks, Japan has decided to seek a "comprehensive solution to issues of nuclear arms, missiles, and abductions." Since the first round in August 2003, Japanese officials have reiterated their position that Japanese economic aid to the North is contingent on normalization of relations, which in turn depends on a resolution of all three outstanding issues. This approach has invited a harsh rhetorical assault from North Korea and criticism from China, Russia, and South Korea, which see the missile and abduction issues as distractions. Even the United States, while supportive of Japan's diplomatic position, has emphasized the primacy of the nuclear problem at the talks. What is behind Japan's diplomatic approach at the talks and how might Japanese goals be achieved?

Japanese goals at the Six-Party Talks

Domestic opinion has become a major motivator of Japanese foreign policy vis-a-vis North Korea since the late 1990s. Electoral reforms in 1994 created single-member districts and large proportional representation blocs, necessitating a shift in emphasis from particular issues to broad-based public appeal. Since revelations about abductee Yokota Megumi emerged in 1997, Japanese abductees and their families have taken on a special status in Japan comparable to the 9/11 victims in the U.S. The public grew further cognizant of the North Korean threat after the long-range Taepodong 1 missile flew over Japan in 1998.

Public hostility toward North Korea is strong and entrenched - a December 2004 Asahi poll indicates 63 percent support for economic sanctions with only 25 percent opposed, and a clear majority opposes the provision of economic aid. This gives Japanese officials a strong incentive to adopt a harsh line vis-a-vis North Korea. The contrast with South Korea is informative. In an April 2005 poll conducted by member companies of Gallup International, 36 percent of South Koreans cited North Korea as a military threat, while 22 percent cited Japan and 20 percent the U.S.

Japan's position also reflects genuine differences in national security interests. North Korean missiles do not yet pose a direct threat to U.S. metropolitan centers, although some estimates put Alaska within range. For South Korea, more geographically proximate threats overshadow the dangers of long-range missiles. South Korea also fears the destabilizing consequences of a North Korean collapse and hence prefers a softer approach. China and Russia do not see North Korea as a direct threat. It is therefore logical that Japan places comparatively greater emphasis on the missile issue. In addition, some Japanese officials and LDP leaders, most notably Abe Shinzo, see the abduction issue as one of national security - North Korea violated the basic human rights of a sovereign nation's citizens and has not guaranteed the security of the abducted persons. Other states primarily view the abductions as a human rights concern. Notably, South Korea has downplayed its own sizable abduction problem to prioritize rapprochement with the North.

Some Japanese government officials view North Korean behavior - abducting foreign nationals and shooting missiles over another's territory - as indicative of a state bent on flaunting international norms. North Korea cannot be trusted to honor international agreements unless it signals a willingness to respect such norms by resolving the missile and abduction issues.

Japan's position also reflects a rational bargaining strategy. By refusing to decouple the abduction and missile issues, Japan can preempt international pressure to provide economic aid in return for North Korean concessions on the nuclear issue alone.

Policy recommendations

By insisting on a comprehensive resolution of the abduction, missile, and nuclear issues, Japanese leaders have adopted an assertive national security strategy that also appeases their domestic audience. However, as a de facto matter, the abduction and missile issues remain sidelined at the talks, and negotiating parties have focused on resolving the nuclear problem. With conditional support from the U.S. and South Korea and outright hostility from China and Russia, Japanese prospects for a satisfactory resolution of the abduction and missile issues within the six-party framework appear grim. We suggest the following policy recommendations:

First, Japan should continue efforts to establish an effective missile defense system. While technological constraints remain, a credible defense system can diminish the value of North Korean missiles as a bargaining item. A defensive missile shield is consistent with the spirit of Japan's pacifist constitution and will allow Japan to take greater responsibility for its national security. Japan should be prepared to introduce its missile defense system as planned by 2007.

Second, the Japanese government should do more to facilitate dialogue between Japanese and Korean victims of abductions and take other steps to garner greater public awareness of the issue in South Korea. Public pressure transformed Japanese policy on the abductions after 1997, and a similar awakening could bring South Korea closer to Japan's position at the bargaining table. Japan and South Korea represent enormous potential sources of economic aid. A united front will put far greater pressure on North Korea.

Third, in framing the abductions as a human rights issue to garner international support, Japan could do more to enhance its credibility by addressing blemishes in its own human rights record. Japan's lax policy toward human trafficking and sex exploitation resulted in Tokyo being placed on the watch list in the U.S. State Department's 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report. While recent progress has been encouraging, such problems threaten to undermine Japan's moral high ground and deserve attention.

Finally, controversies over Yasukuni Shrine and whitewashed history textbooks make it more difficult for Asian neighbors to openly cooperate with their Japanese counterparts. This is particularly counterproductive for diplomatic cooperation between South Korea and Japan, two countries that share significant security interests and democratic values. While such common interests are less obvious with China and Russia, lingering hostility is a clear handicap for Japanese diplomacy. Koizumi's decision to forego a Yasukuni visit on Aug. 15 to focus the Sept. 11 elections on postal reform has prevented a further deterioration in Japan's position. However, Japanese leaders must seriously consider more long-term solutions such as the construction of a less controversial national war memorial.

Japanese leaders will continue to face strong public pressure on their policies toward North Korea for the foreseeable future. At present, bilateral negotiations remain the only realistic, if disheartening, option. In the long-run, policy initiatives to garner international support, particularly from Japan's neighbors, represent the most promising means toward achieving Japanese diplomatic objectives.

(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

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