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

Japan's Hard Line Backfires

Weston S. Konishi (Director of Programs at The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)

Japanese hardliners have sabotaged their nation's negotiating position in the Six-Party Talks over the North Korea crisis. Japan has been relegated to the role of fifth-party whiner - protesting North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals but offering no public proposal to make a deal with Pyongyang that would bring closure to the issue. Tokyo must adopt a better strategy that will allow it to bargain hard - but at least bargain - with North Korea to achieve its objectives.

The abduction issue tops Japan's agenda at the talks. Pyongyang has admitted kidnapping at least 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, but has repatriated only five and claimed that the others are no longer alive. In November 2004, North Korea handed over the alleged remains of Yokota Megumi, who was abducted when she was 13 and reportedly committed suicide while in captivity. DNA tests performed in Japan suggested that the cremated remains were not hers, but questions have risen about the accuracy of the initial tests.

The steady drip of revelations has overshadowed Japanese perceptions of North Korea and hardened public opinion against the regime. A more rational assessment of Japan's priorities would focus on resolving the security threat posed by North Korea's illicit nuclear program and long-range missiles. The Japanese public is in no mood to concentrate on those details, nor are they inclined to strike a deal that provides economic largesse to Pyongyang for scraps of dubious information about the fate of the abductees.

It is easy to criticize Japan's preoccupation with the abduction issue. But in Japan the abductions are seen as a national tragedy. As a result, Japanese negotiators kept raising the abduction issue during the fourth round of Six-Party Talks in early August. North Korean officials lashed back, and even Chinese and South Korean diplomats seemed to complain that Japan was "holding up" discussions on the nuclear crisis.

Japan's preoccupation with the abduction issue would not be so misplaced if it could approach the problem from a stronger position. Instead of merely venting anger, Tokyo should find ways to use the six-party process to bring some closure to the abduction cases. Not only would this approach stand a better chance of attaining Japan's main objectives, but it could also reinforce proposals of other nations at the negotiating table.

South Korea's offer to provide 2 million kilowatts of electricity to the North in exchange for denuclearization seems uniquely suited to a greater Japanese role. Tokyo could agree to join this scheme on the condition that Pyongyang meets a clear set of expectations on resolving the abduction issue.

There are doubts whether Seoul can deliver this deal on its own. The Nautilus Institute argues that Japan is the only nation with the resources to rehabilitate North Korea's power system so it can absorb a large infusion of electricity from the South. There are also questions whether Seoul can unilaterally finance the project, which may cost $2.4 billion to start and as much as $1.5 billion per year to continue.

A joint energy scheme would be difficult to coordinate, but Tokyo and Seoul have cooperated on a similar project under the auspices of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). Japan might be criticized by the U.S. for its more flexible approach, but it is hard to imagine the U.S. objecting to an aid package that would be paid for by other nations and that would be delivered only if the North completely dismantled its nuclear programs.

The real problem is that Japanese officials cannot consider a deal with North Korea given the political environment in Tokyo. Groups like the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea have created a powerful political force that has effectively killed off any initiative to engage Pyongyang. Far from empowering Japan's position at the Six-Party Talks, these hardliners have only marginalized Japan. Without much to contribute beyond protests, Japanese negotiators are now almost entirely reliant on the other powers to reach an agreement on denuclearizing North Korea, let alone reaching some settlement of the abduction issue.

Japan needs to claim an active role in the six-party process or it risks being out of step with its partners as it was prior to the 1994 Agreed Framework. Although all minds in Tokyo have been focused on the elections, the coming shakeup in the Diet could provide political cover to reorient Japan's policy toward North Korea. Prime Minister Koizumi should instruct his new Cabinet to develop a proposal that would commit North Korea to an institutionalized, long-term fact-finding process ensuring that both parties continue to work on the abduction issue beyond the end of Koizumi's term.

Japanese negotiators could then enter the six-party sessions with a proposal in hand and work out the details in subsequent working group sessions. Whether it is at this six-party meeting or soon thereafter, Tokyo should make the bottom line clear: that there will be no aid to North Korea without progress on the abduction issue, and that without Japanese aid no large-scale economic deal will be sustainable.

(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

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