Pyongyang and Tokyo’s surpriseJapan has managed to do what Korea and the United States have never been able to. The Obama administration’s North Korean policy is supposed to be all about “strategic patience,” but it’s actually all about “nonstrategic nonaction.” The focus of U.S. foreign policy simply shifted from the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia to the Middle East. While Pyongyang continued to demand to talk with the United States, Washington simply shrugged that it will come to the negotiation table only after Pyongyang begins its denuclearization process. The United States is not willing to meet to discuss denuclearization. While Washington is gearing up to tighten sanctions against North Korea, such a measure cannot fatally affect North Korea as long as China is there to keep open the loopholes in the sanctions.
The Park Geun-hye administration is bound by a fundamentalist North Korean policy grounded in the hard-line principles of the three key national security officials — Kim Jang-soo, Nam Jae-joon and Kim Kwan-jin. Seoul is not talking to Pyongyang, and the high-level diplomatic meeting following the resumption of business at the Kaesong Industrial Complex was a one-off event. With Pyongyang threatening a fourth nuclear test, the prospects for denuclearization is growing murkier.
North Korea is responsible for its own isolation, but China’s attitude is making it feel painfully left out. Two and half years have passed since the Kim Jong-un regime began, but a Pyongyang-Beijing summit has not yet been held. Last year, President Park visited China and Chinese President Xi Jinping is to come to Seoul soon. Kim Jong-un can only feel frustrated and neglected as China, the only supporter of North Korea, gives him the cold shoulder. Beijing’s attitude added pressure on North Korea, which was cornered by the sanctions levied by the United Nations Security Council in March 2013. Seeing things in this context, Kim Jong-un made a well-timed choice to find an escape from his isolation by cozying up to Japan.
Shinzo Abe had initiated a meeting with relatives of abducted Japanese in 1997. In 2002, as a cabinet minister, he accompanied then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on his visit to Pyongyang. The resolution of the abduction issue has been a key objective of his entire political career. When Abe became prime minister in 2006, he made that issue his top administrative priority. To Abe, the abduction issue is a multipurpose card. He not only gains domestic popularity by flashing it, but can also use it as a lever to influence South Korea when Seoul-Tokyo ties go into a deep freeze, where they are now. It is also a natural choice for the Abe government to use the drift between Pyongyang and Beijing as Japan-China ties are pretty bad too due to a territorial dispute.
As Pyongyang was seeking a breakthrough from its international isolation, it took a cue from Abe’s soaring popularity and his eager desire to be seen to be solving the abduction issue. A high-ranking official from the State Security Department was sent to Japan and proposed negotiations, the Asahi Shimbun reported. North Korea and Japan made behind-the-scenes contacts in China and Vietnam at the end of last year. In March, parents of abductee Megumi Yokota had a dramatic reunion with their granddaughter in Mongolia. It was a remarkable accomplishment in the North Korea-Japan negotiation. North Korea and Japan sensed that a greater agreement could be made and worked hard on it.
Undeterred by Seoul and Washington’s skepticism, North Korea and Japan have crossed the Rubicon. When North Korea launches a special committee to reinvestigate the abductees issue, Japan will lift some sanctions on North Korea. That will be nothing less than a fatal blow to the Korea-U.S.-Japan united front against the North’s nuclear threat. That’s why Seoul and Washington expressed serious concern over the deal between Tokyo and Pyongyang and demanded transparency in the negotiations. That is a justifiable, if belated, demand. But it is not wise to look at the North Korea-Japan agreement so negatively, as it could have positive effects. If Seoul complains about the agreement North Korea and Japan worked so hard to reach, Seoul’s position on North Korean affairs would become extremely narrow.
It is significant that the Pyongyang-Tokyo agreement indicates Japan’s will to realize normalization of diplomatic ties with the North. It is too early to say that the abduction issue will reach a satisfying conclusion and lead to normalization. There could be huge bumps along that twisty road. However, Japan is the first country with a major interest in Korean Peninsular affairs to bring North Korea out of isolation. Engaging the recalcitrant regime in an in-depth conversation is a significant accomplishment.
Korea should be more concerned about the possibility that the Pyongyang-Tokyo agreement will remain a one-off event involving the abductions and will fail to alleviate North Korea’s hostility or nuclear threat, leaving no clue for further resolutions. However, depending on how Seoul and Washington respond, the agreement between Japan and North Korea could bring North Korea to the nuclear negotiation table. Seoul and Washington should be positively stimulated by the Japan-North Korea agreement. Seoul has to make a drastic decision to give up its stubborn principle, lift the May 24 measures, restart tours to Mount Kumgang and resume working-level meetings. It is a step forward to build mutual trust. Seoul must look at the Korea-Japan relationship with a broader perspective, and the two countries’ leaders need to meet and seek political resolutions. As Korean Peninsular affairs are part of Northeast Asian politics, they can hardly be resolved outside the framework of Northeast Asian politics.
As a major stakeholder in the region, Japan must keep North Korea’s nuclear program in mind at all times and maintain the trilateral alliance as much as possible when dealing with Pyongyang. If Japan neglects the nuclear issue and only focuses on issues between Tokyo and Pyongyang, it will lose international confidence and be branded as a selfish country. If a summit between Kim and Abe is held in September, as the Asahi Shimbun reported, North Korea’s nuclear weapons must be included as a major agenda item.