Japan-North Korea Diplomatic Normalization and Northeast Asian Peace

[On the eve of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s second visit to North Korea in eighteen months, Japan Focus presents Wada Haruki’s analysis of the larger stakes in the Japan-North Korea negotiations. Setting off the emotional issues of the kidnapping of Japanese against the record of Japanese colonialism in Korea, Wada examines the prospects for negotiating an agreement that could become the basis for defusing the range of contentious issues that continue to swirl around a nuclear North Korea facing acute problems of starvation and isolated from its powerful neighbor and historic antagonist, Japan. Wada Haruki is Emeritus Professor of the University of Tokyo. A specialist in Russian and Korean history and politics, he is the author of the monumental Complete History of the Korean War (Chosen senso zenshi). This article appeared in Sekai (World), January 2004.]


The Manifesto issued by Japan‘s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) before the November 2003 general election, under the heading “to develop a foreign policy that met Japan‘s national interests,” vowed to “resolve the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals.” In an appended explanation the party declared its aim as “normalizing relations with North Korea by seeking resolution in three areas: abductions, nuclear weapons, and missiles.” However, the main text ended by professing its intention to confront this problem by setting up a party headquarters to deal with the abductee issue and realize “the quick return of the abductee victims’ family members.”


On September 19, 2003 Abe Shinzo, delayed his plan to step down from his post as deputy chief cabinet secretary in order to convene a meeting of specialists on the kidnapping issue held at the prime minister’s office. Here he reconfirmed the government’s position that Japan would only open a new round of normalization discussions with North Korea after the family members of the kidnap victims were allowed to return to Japan. The Japanese government would for the time being reject any demands made by the North Koreans for reparation payments. Abe inserted into the party’s Manifesto a milder version of this policy after he assumed his new position as LDP Secretary General, only to return to the former tone when he informed the repatriated Japanese abductees that normalization negotiations would not begin until North Korea agreed to return the family members. The LDP Manifesto contained not a hint of a suggestion for breaking the present impasse.


The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), seeking to seize political power, pledged as item two in the diplomacy section of its Manifesto to “protect world peace centered on the United Nations.” Concerning the abductee issue, it explained: “A rapid resolution of North Korea‘s abductions of Japanese citizens is the most important issue from the standpoint of Japanese sovereignty and humanity. The DPJ will appeal to North Korea, as well as to the United Nations and world opinion for the prompt transfer to Japan of the victims’ families and a full clarification of their abductions.” The Manifesto supported resolving North Korean nuclear issues through the six-nation talks, and it linked this process to the formation of a regional trust-building organization. The document, however, refrained from making any reference to diplomatic normalization with North Korea. As a party that opposed the government’s plan to dispatch Japanese self-defense troops to Iraq, one would expect the DPJ to put forth a more flexible and constructive alternative to the LDP’s stalled policy toward North Korea. However, its Manifesto failed to distinguish itself from declarations made by the LDP. As a practical measure to break this impasse, the party could only offer the oft-heard suggestion that Japan employ international opinion. Perhaps realizing the shortcoming, the DPJ appended a vow just before the election to draft an amendment to halt financial remittances to North Korea. Secretary General Abe, however, countered that the LDP had already completed a bill designed to address this very point.


The fact that these two Manifestos demonstrate little difference in North Korea policy, the biggest diplomatic issue that Japan faces, shows the stagnation of contemporary Japanese politics.


At this time the two abductee victims support groups, the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN) and the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN), distributed a questionnaire to all election candidates, to which roughly 84 percent responded. On the question of whether the candidates recognized kidnapping as an act of terrorism, 93 percent answered in the affirmative. Fifty-five percent agreed that stronger foreign currency legislation was needed to enforce economic sanctions that limited financial remittance and trade. Fifty-two percent of the respondents believed it necessary to enact new legislation to restrict particular ships from entering Japanese ports (Asahi shinbun November 4, 2003). Reflected in their responses was pressure felt by candidates as a result of receiving a questionnaire from two of the most powerful pressure groups in Japan. Over half of those who responded felt that Japan should punish North Korea with economic sanctions.

Questions regarding
Japan‘s North Korean policy lingered after the general elections. Would the National Diet proceed with legal preparations to enforce economic sanctions,the formula that NARKN declared at its national convention would break the present impasse? Would Japan alone enforce economic sanctions against North Korea at a time when preparations were underway for a second round of six-nation discussions in December? And if Japan did impose sanctions, would North Korea capitulate? Japan‘s threats to impose sanctions on North Korea cannot be considered a positive contribution to Northeast Asian peace and stability.


The plan advanced in Fall 2002 by Abe Shinzo as deputy chief cabinet secretary — to force North Korea into submission — had after a year failed to produce any results towards resolving the abductee issue. At that time he predicted, “In North Korea there is no food or oil, whereas Japan has both of these products. North Korea will submit to Japan after it learns that it cannot survive the winter.” North Korea survived Winter 2002 as well as Winter 2003. Would it return the family members of kidnapped Japanese out of consideration for Prime Minister Koizumi’s situation? Could it strike a deal as the election approached? Such ideas were put forth but no progress was made.


A number of people proposed various “abductee solutions,” yet none considered any new direction or approach to encourage resolution. What this discussion did form was a unified public consensus. The media linked its message to that of the political world, thus making it very difficult for anyone to deviate from the accepted voice. The foreign media provided the lone exception. University of California at Berkeley professor Steven Vogel, in an article titled “Don’t let the abductee issue kidnap diplomacy,” warned the Japanese government “not to let the abductee issue ‘kidnap’ its aim of strengthening East Asian peace and security” (Newsweek [Japanese edition], July 23, 2003). In the magazine’s October 22 issue one writer wrote on the “pitfalls of abductee hysteria.” This author argued: “It has been one year since the abductee victims returned home. Diplomacy is distorted by adoption of a position that continues to dwell on a solution centered solely on this issue.” These positions differed dramatically from the views expressed by the Japanese domestic media.


Political figures and ordinary citizens are immobilized by a mindset preaching national unity. Consideration of alternative routes would perhaps have hastened the road to solution. Instead, Japan‘s stubborn determination to hold to the present course delayed all progress. The prediction that concluded the Newsweek article — “Japan would greet October 15 again without any advancement toward solution” — thus proved prophetic. How did we enter this blind alley that brought this social atmosphere and public opinion? What problems do we need to address?


Conventional Wisdoms


The American magazine that characterized Japanese public opinion as in a state of “abductee hysteria” drew from a number of elements. Of prominent importance was the moment when suspicions of abduction became incidents of abduction. The shock felt from learning that North Korea actually did kidnap Japanese citizens disseminated a strong emotion of anger against the country throughout the Japanese population. The abductee families experienced shock and hopelessness upon learning that only five of the thirteen Japanese abductees had survived. Japanese emotions naturally swelled upon witnessing their reactions. What the Japanese people needed from politicians and intellectuals was a responsible voice to help ease the pain and give vent to anger while pursuing a rational diplomatic response.


Herein lies a second factor — the rightwing media. In advancing their anti-North Korean campaign, one that it soon tied to national sentiments, weekly magazines such as Shukan bunshun, which invariably criticized North Korea and opposed the negotiations leading to Japan-North Korea diplomatic normalization, joined monthly magazines such as Shokun! (published by Bungei shunshu) and Seiron (published by the Sankei shinbun company) in their attack on the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s office, and the “pro-North Korean faction.”


The leaders of this movement, NARKN represented by Sato Katsumi, and AFVKN represented by Hirosawa Katsuei, comprised a third element. These groups were shocked by both the September 2002 Koizumi-Kim summit held in Pyongyang and the Pyongyang Declaration that the two leaders signed. They immediately sought to reclaim their influence over North Korean policy matters. This “third element” accused the government of failing to examine the death reports on the eight deceased abductees, and insisted that they may still be alive. They further attacked Tanaka Hitoshi, the Foreign Ministry official who conducted the negotiations that led to Koizumi’s eventual visit to Pyongyang. These two groups wielded a heavy influence over the Diet, political parties, and the mass media.


A fourth element, a mass media shocked by the realization that the hitherto unsubstantiated suspicions of North Korea kidnappings were indeed fact, bowed to criticism over their lackluster reportage of the issue to date. The media forfeited control of the story’s coverage to NARKN, thus relinquishing its independent position. NHK television news and the “wide shows” highlighted shots of the repatriated abductee victims and their family members who remained in North Korea. The wide shows also devoted time slots to various revelations about North Korea.


The first conventional wisdom born from this synergistic element ignored North Korean claims regarding Japan‘s colonial occupation by presenting the abduction issue as the totality of the Japan-North Korea relationship. Had these voices forgotten their country’s past role as assailant? Japan had become the sole victim in its relations with North Korea.


This feeling surfaced in a September 2002 editorial authored by Kamiya Fuji who declared that since colonial rule from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century was “widely recognized as a merit to be pursued by advanced countries,” it was wrong to judge this period by contemporary standards. He continued: “It is appropriate for Japan to reflect (hansei) and offer compensation (shai) to North Korea for the colonization of the Korean peninsula.” However, a “clear qualitative difference must be made between the inappropriateness of [Japanese colonialism] and the necessary pursuit of the international crimes of kidnappings and terrorism.” (Asahi shinbun, September 21, 2002, evening edition). For Kamiya, kidnapping was far more reprehensible and criminal than colonial occupation.


Absent from the Japanese media’s reportage since the Koizumi-Kim Summit is mention of the historical relationship between Japan and North Korea. The magazine Aera did offer one such article, titled “An enduring relationship of estranged friendship: war disruption and control in Japan-North Korea modern history” and authored by Taoka Shunji in a special edition dedicated to “North Korea’s transfiguration” that it published on September 17, the night before the summit. No such articles have appeared since.


This view differs profoundly from the convictions of the leading proponents of this campaign. Opposed to Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro’s 1992 statement of apology to Korea, NARKN chairman Sato Katsumi formed a national committee around the belief that “Japan is not an invading country” [Nihon wa shinryaku kuni dewa nai]. In his March 2002 book, Why is Japanese foreign policy toward the Korean Peninsula weak? Sato directly criticized Tanaka Hitoshi’s tenure as head of the Northeast Asia Bureau for admitting that “in the past Japan made mistakes.” Araki Kazuhiro, then the National Council’s First Secretary General and subsequently Special Representative for Investigations of Missing People, parroted the words of the Korean Kim Wan Seop’s In defense of the pro-Japanese that Araki translated, by claiming that Japan‘s colonial occupation contributed to Korean welfare.


Abe Shinzo was the Deputy Secretary General of the “Diet Members League for Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the War’s End” when the League blocked the Diet Resolution of Remorse and Apology drafted in 1995 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end. The Diet League’s Chairman Okuno Seisuke and Secretary General Itagaki Tadashi (son of Itagaki Seishiro, prominent military figure in the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria from 1931) reasoned that the previous war was “one fought for Japan‘s survival and prosperity as well as for Asian peaceful liberation.” He opposed any reflection or compensation by Japan. Abe opposed the Diet resolution and did not participate in the vote held at the plenary session. There is also little doubt that he opposed Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi’s views on this matter. In 1997 Abe formed the “Association of Young Diet Members Concerned with Japan‘s Prospects and History Education”. This group declared that there was no comfort women issue. Thus, not only was Kono Yohei’s August 1993 statement calling for reflection and compensation mistaken, but the comfort women issue should be stricken from school textbooks. Later, NARKN chairman Nakagawa Shoichi served as the Association’s chairman, and Abe its secretary general.