New Hopes Rise in the Korean Peninsula


Can Japan’s détente with North Korea help moderate Pyongyang’s aggressive behaviour, asks Dr Shamshad A Khan

Japan’s engagement with North Korea recently witnessed unexpected warmth. Though the engagement is driven by Japan’s domestic factors – securing the repatriation of Japanese abductees from the hermit nation – it may help end Pyongyang’s seclusion from the international community, if it is encouraged to give up its aggressive behaviour.

The abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s apparently to provide language training to its intelligence agencies, is one of the most contentious issues between Tokyo and Pyongyang and has been a major impediment in normalisation of diplomatic ties. Both countries, however, seem committed to resolving the issue and have revived talks which remained suspended since 2008.

To resolve the abduction issue of Japanese citizens, top diplomats from Japan and North Korea held a series of talks in Stockholm and Beijing in the last three months. In what may be termed as a major breakthrough, North Korea agreed in early July to set up a special committee to investigate the fate of the Japanese abductees. In return, Japan lifted some of the sanctions it had imposed on North Korea in 2006, following the latter’s nuclear and missile tests. As part of their understanding, which has been termed as ‘action for action’ principles, Japan has lifted unilateral sanctions including the ban on the entry of North Korean nationals into Japan, the entry of North Korean-registered vessels into Japanese ports for humanitarian reasons and has allowed limited remittances from Japan to North Korea.

Notably, it was the Shinzo Abe government which had imposed these sanctions on North Korea during his previous term in office. In contradiction to the previous stance, Abe, during his second term in office, has cited the resolution of abduction issues as one of the top priorities of his government, in view of the ageing families of the abductees. The US and South Korea, which were averse to Japan lifting unilateral sanctions, maintained that Japan’s action would render sanctions on North Korea meaningless and make it difficult to persuade the recalcitrant regime to abandon its nuclear programme.

Political Motives Induce Thaw in Relations

Though officials in Japan term the Japanese move as a purely humanitarian gesture, critics believe that the thaw in relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang is not limited to humanitarian issues, but is driven by political motives.

Unlike previous occasions, Japan did not suspend talks with North Korea when it conducted short range missile tests during Japan-North Korea talks and close on the heels of Chinese President’s visit to South Korea on June 27 and 29. Japan did lodge its protest to the North over this belligerent action. This is indicative of the fact that Japan remains committed to engaging the North and expects long-term gains.

Undoubtedly, both Japan and North Korea have their own reasons for engaging with each other. North Korea remains isolated from the international community because of its aggressive behaviour highlighted by testing of nuclear weapons and missiles. Moreover, it annoyed its most valuable ally, China following the execution of Jong Son-Thaek, an important political figure in the Kim Jong-Un regime. China has not held summit level talks with the North ever since Kim Jong-Un took over the administration, leaving North Korea further isolated. The rapprochement will bring some economic benefit to the pariah state, which is desperate to revive its dilapidated economy, and will fulfil North Korea’s long pending wish to normalise relations with Japan.

Similarly, Japan faces political isolation from China and South Korea over differences on historical issues and territorial disputes. A rapprochement between Tokyo and Pyongyang will send a clear message to Japanese domestic constituencies that it is no longer isolated in the region, thus raising the Abe cabinet’s public approval which plummeted following the decision to exercise Collective Self-Defence.

A New Chapter Begins

Amid reports that several abductees are still alive, there is speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would visit North Korea to secure repatriation of the abductees, just like former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did in 2002.

If Abe indeed visits Pyongyang and holds talks with top North Korean leaders, it will mark the beginning of a new chapter in Japan-North Korea ties. Abe’s recent move towards North Korea suggests the adoption of a two-pronged strategy vis-à-vis the North, which involves continuation of trilateral coordination consisting of the US, South Korea and Japan to meet security challenges posed by the North, while at the same time, using out-of-the-box measures to moderate the North’s aggressive behaviour.

South Korean sources have indicated the possibility of the North preparing for the fourth nuclear test. However, Japan’s overtures have compelled Pyongyang to postpone the testing, since conducting any further tests would compel Japan to rethink its strategy, leading to further isolation of the Kim Jong-Un regime.

Critics believe that Japan’s approach would undermine the international communities’ efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programme. It would be premature to view this initial bonhomie between the two nations negatively. Myanmar is the recent test case in the region. US-Myanmar talks changed Nay Pyi Taw’s outlook after it realised the benefits of engagement with the world, leading to the political transformation of the country. Similarly, talks between Japan and North Korea can lead to an improvement in bilateral ties, leading to further easing of sanctions and the flow of Japanese economic aid to the North. The Kim Jong-Un regime might also sense the benefits of engaging with an economically vibrant neighbour, which could encourage it to jettison the behaviour that has led to its seclusion. Since harsher measures of sanctions and boycotts have not yielded expected results, an alternative method of offering ‘carrots’ must be utilised. While Japan must be commended for taking up such innovative steps, it must be cautious to ensure that its engagement does not further embolden the North’s aggressive posture.

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Dr Shamshad A Khan
Dr Shamshad A Khan is Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. All views are personal

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