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Japan tries to find friendship with North Korea

Anatomy of North Korea, Part 7: Pyongyang-Tokyo relations

Aug 07,2017
Every other Monday, Ko Soo-suk, a North Korea expert at the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Center, provides an in-depth look at one of the most reclusive nations on the planet. The analyses are based on the senior journalist’s two decades of reporting on North Korea. -Ed.



Historically speaking, North Korea and Japan are enemies. Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula for 35 years from 1910, and the end of this period is what gave rise to the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.

Its founder, Kim Il Sung, portrayed himself as a national liberator, propagandizing his efforts fighting in anti-Japanese guerilla groups, which later became a core part of his personality cult. The men who fought alongside Kim against Japan’s colonial rule in the early 20th century were bestowed coveted positions in Kim’s inner orbit, and their children still comprise a large portion of the top brass today.

The famed North Korean revolutionary operas “The Flower Girl” and “Sea of Blood” are byproducts of this personality cult, as they express the regime’s ideology of juche, or “self-reliance.”

But time and circumstances have certainly changed. North Korea and Japan held their first summit in 2002, and Pyongyang’s hatred was directed at a new target - the United States.

In fact, Tokyo is keenly interested in improving ties with Pyongyang. In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent his senior advisor, Isao Iijima, to Pyongyang on an unannounced trip. It is unknown what exactly was talked about, but many speculated that the envoy went to discuss the release of dozens of Japanese citizens who were abducted during the 1970s and 1980s.

In 2002, Iijima, who at the time was serving as an advisor to then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, went to North Korea and played a pivotal role in the release of five Japanese abductees. Abe, then deputy chief cabinet secretary, accompanied Iijima and rose to national prominence.

Tokyo has tried to normalize relations with Pyongyang for years. At the bilateral summit in 2002, both countries confirmed the “shared recognition that establishing a fruitful political, economic and cultural relationship” would greatly contribute to the peace and stability of the region, while Japan expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for its colonial rule in the past, according to excerpts from Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

The agreement, named the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, was signed between then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. In 2014, intergovernmental consultations were held in Stockholm, where the two countries discussed the repatriation of Japanese nationals detained in the North.

As the world pressures North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal by adding more sanctions, Tokyo’s push to build rapport with Pyongyang has been halted, but interactions are still ongoing in the humanitarian sector.

Given North Korea’s geopolitical location, it’s hard for Japan not to want better ties with the North. For one thing, it neighbors China, one of the world’s two greatest superpowers, so having the North on its side would mean Japan could gain more power in East Asia.

North Korea is also rich in rare-earth resources, which Japan lacks. If the regime holds 200 million tons of such elements in reserve, as it claims, that would make it the second richest in such reserves after China.

Japan relies heavily on China for rare-earth imports, which yielded catastrophic results in 2010 when both countries clashed over a patch of disputed islands in the East China Sea called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. At the time, Beijing accounted for 56 percent of Japan’s rare-earth imports, so when China decided to cut off those imports, Tokyo eventually folded and released the crew members of a Chinese fishing boat who had been arrested operating near the contested waters.

It was a wake-up call for Japan to find new sources, and since then, the country has signed new development deals with Australia, Vietnam and India, among others.

In an effort to build ties, Japan tried to launch a cooperative project with North Korea, excavating the remains of its victims of war in the country. From the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) to World War II, the remains of 20,000 Japanese are estimated to have been buried in the North. The talks eventually floundered, however, when both sides failed to agree on costs. North Korea reportedly demanded tens of millions of dollars from Japan for what it called an extensive “cemetery survey.”

For North Korea, the normalization of relations raises the possibility of gaining financial compensation from Japan for its colonial rule in the early 20th century. When South Korea normalized ties with Japan in 1965, it received $300 million, which Kim Jong-un thinks would translate to about $30 billion today. In cash-strapped Pyongyang, that could be a crucial boost to the leader’s “Byungjin Nosun” policy, which relies on the parallel pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is known to be fond of Japanese animation. His own mother, Ko Yong-hui, was born in Osaka.

But when it comes to diplomacy, Pyongyang appears to underestimate - if not downright overlook - Tokyo’s leverage over Washington. His father, former leader Kim Jong-il, once told his Japanese counterpart in 2002 during the bilateral summit that Japan was the United States’ “most credible ally” in Asia, adding that he hoped Japan would play a role in thawing relations between Pyongyang and Washington.

Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, is trying to seek direct communication with the White House.

BY KO SOO-SUK, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]


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