How the Media views talks between North Korea and Japan
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
Over the past week, the international media has closely monitored the flurry of diplomatic activity that took place between Japan and North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea). Interestingly enough, the media's attention was not focused on the outcome of the two-day talks between Japanese and North Korean Foreign Ministry officials in Pyongyang but rather on the motivation behind the move to resume talks at this particular juncture after two years of stagnation.
The general consensus was that little was achieved in concrete terms through these talks that took place between August 25-26. Although, the Asahi Evening News did claim that "Japan gained ground" in Pyongyang the actual analysis provided indicated that none of the core issues blocking any move towards diplomatic normalization were resolved. The main obstacles include North Korea's denial of abducting 11 Japanese nationals during the 1970's and 1980's and Japan's refusal to issue an apology and compensation for crimes committed against Korea during its 35 year occupation of the Peninsula between 1910-45. Officially, Japanese Foreign Ministry sources claimed that there was not enough time to arrive at an agreement on these issues and that negotiations would resume in a month's time.
Curiosity peeked when the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, announced his intention to visit North Korea on 17 September despite the lack of progress made in recent negotiations. Koizumi's visit will represent the first trip by a Japanese Prime Minister to North Korea and unless a secretive arrangement is in the works it is hard to imagine why the Prime Minister would travel to the North while critical problems remain outstanding.
Elaine Lies' assessment was that the announcement represented an attempt to bolster Koizumi's status both domestically and regionally. She claimed that, "for Koizumi, whose popularity has been flagging at home, agreement from the North for a visit is a major diplomatic coup". She went on to indicate that the move was also likely aimed to, "enhance his stature in the region at a time when Tokyo is worried about losing influence to China" (August 30, Reuters).
As far as North Korean motives were concerned most articles pointed to two reasons for the resumption of talks with Japan and for its positive response towards Koizumi's announcement to visit the country: (1) the threat of starvation; and (2) the desire to relieve Kim Jong Il's regime from increased US pressure.
In relation to the first argument, the BBC reported that the desire of North Korean officials to improve ties with key US allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, were "prompted by economic desperation and the need for foreign help" (25 August). The article further indicated that officials were seeking a commitment on food aid, which Japan has refused to extend this year despite being one of the largest sources of such aid to North Korea in recent years. Although a Japanese Foreign Ministry official was quoted in the Asahi Evening News as stating that food aid was not discussed during the talks, CNN's article of 26 August reiterated Pyongyang's search for food and emphasized that Japan has shipped 1.18 million tons of food aid to the North in the past.
As to the second reason, the press outlined a parallel between US lobbying activities in Asia that sought to gain support for its plans to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and a potential attack on the communist regime in North Korea. Just as the US has criticized Iraq of producing Weapons of Mass Destruction, the US Under Secretary of State, John Bolton, accused North Korea this week as being the "world's foremost missile peddler" causing many to question whether the US was planning to topple Kim along similar lines. Amidst increasing pressure, North Korean officials reportedly want to position Japan as an intermediary between itself and the US. Recognizing Japan's aversion to increased instability in the region, the strategy communicated by news sources such as the BBC, CNN and Reuters was one that tried to promote dialogue and negotiation with the US through its allies in Asia with the ultimate objective of preserving Kim's hold on power. Towards this end the Asahi Evening News indicated that North Korea recognizes that, "it needs tacit approval from the US to sustain Kim's regime".
What these news items reveal is that negotiations between Japan and North Korea are motivated by issues of personal prestige and political power. For Koizumi, recent overtures aim to deflect domestic criticism by demonstrating diplomatic success abroad. For Kim Jong-Il, the strategy is to use Japan and South Korea to reach a compromise solution with the US in order to prolong his rule. If this is indeed true, the matter is very depressing, beckoning us to ask whether there exists any genuine effort for peace in the Peninsula at all. At the end of the day, the core issues do not seem to be about the fate of the abducted Japanese, compensation for suffering during Japan's colonial period or even about the millions of starving North Koreans today. Instead, its all about political survival.
- "Koizumi planning historic trip to North Korea", Reuters, 30 August 2002
- "Japan gains ground in Pyongyan talks", Asahi Evening News, 28 August 2002
- Elaine Lies, "Japan PM to make historic North Korean visit", Reuters, 30 August 2002
- "North Korea Says US Hypocritical over Weapons", Reuters, 26 August 2002
- Yuri Kageyama, "Japan and North Korea Fail to bridge differences but agree to more talks", the Associated Press, 27 August 2002
- "North Korea - Japan talks Underway", the BBC, 25 August 2002
- "Japan, North Korea Wrap up talks", CNN, 26 August 2002