Reports that Japan and North Korea are holding secret talks concerning a possible meeting between Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong-un appear in the media fairly often. According to one of the latest reports, the summit is to take place in November 2018. And although the month is almost over, this is a good opportunity for us to look at the various attempts Tokyo has made to build up a relationship with Pyongyang in recent months.
At the end of March reports appeared in the Japanese media claiming that Shinzo Abe’s assistants had started discussing the idea of a one-to-one meeting between him and the North Korean leader.
On April 11 the first meeting between South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono took place in Seoul. According to the Japanese news agency Kyodo, Taro Kono said that Japan would very much like the upcoming summit between North and South Korea to discuss the possibility of allowing the Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by the North Korean special services in the 1970s and 1980s to return to their country. He made a similar request when he met the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who promised Tokyo that he would help to resolve this problem together with North Korea. He also promised to help to promote closer relations between Japan and North Korea.
On April 21 the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono stated that North Korea should complete the denuclearization process by 2020, before the end of Donald Trump’s current term in office, and added that Pyongyang would not be given any rewards for its denuclearization until it had taken “clear and irrevocable steps”.
On April 30 further reports appeared, to the effect that Japan had asked Sweden and Mongolia to pass on a message to North Korea concerning Japan’s wish to arrange a summit between Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong-un.
Later, citing diplomatic sources, the Kyodo agency reported that back in April 2018, in all likelihood, a group had been be set up on the North Korean leader’s orders to arrange talks with Japan.
On May 4, 2018 the Japanese ambassador to South Korea, Yasumasa Nagamine, said in an interview with KBS that a summit between Japan and North Korea was impossible until the problem of the kidnapped Japanese citizens had been solved. Only then would Tokyo be ready to normalize its relations with Pyongyang and start discussing the question of compensation for Japan’s actions during the colonial period.
On May 8, the North Korean newspaper Rodon Sinmun printed an article with the headline “Provocation by militarist fanatics”, and calling Japan the “eternal enemy” of the Korean people. The article also referred to this April’s joint military exercises involving the Japanese self-defense forces and the British armed forces, aimed at preventing illegal activity by North Korean ships, and the exercises involving the Japanese and US forces which ended on May 9, describing them as evidence of Japan’s “ambition to invade the Korean peninsula a second time.” According to the article, Japan is just the USA’s “maidservant”, and has no role to play in changing the political situation on the Korean peninsula.
On May 9, back in Tokyo after a summit in which he had met Li Keqiang, Premier of the Chinese State Council, and the President of South Korea, Shinzo Abe said that Japan would normalize relations with North Korea if that country disarmed and resolved the problem of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean special services in the 1970s and 1980s.
On June 10, at the G7 summit, Shinzo Abe confirmed that Japan was ready to provide North Korea with economic aid if it gave up its nuclear weapons and rockets.
In the middle of June 2018 sources from the Japan Times reported that the Japanese government was looking at the possibility of a meeting between Taro Kono, the Foreign Minister, and his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho.
On June 27, at the international Conference on Disarmament, held in Geneva, the North Korean representative declared that Japan, with its demands that Pyongyang denuclearize in full, was “sticking its nose into something that wasn’t its business”.
On June 3 North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that, according to an article in the Japanese newspaper Tokyo Shimbun on June 1, the Japanese Prime Minister had “defined the holding of a summit between Japan and North Korea as a top-priority diplomatic objective.” However, in response North Korea claimed that “Japan’s own behavior stands in the way”: how could there be any talk of dialogue when Japan was calling for the continuation of sanctions and pressure against North Korea and continually raising the issue of the kidnappings? “By sticking its nose into matters relating to the Korean peninsula, and by profiteering, Japan is displaying its characteristic cunning and self-interest”. On the other hand now is “Japan’s best chance to cleanse itself from the stain of its past crimes”, a chance which should not be passed over.
On August 6 Shinzo Abe said again that it was essential for him to have a personal meeting with the North Korean leader in order to resolve the problem of the nuclear and rocket program and the kidnappings of Japanese citizens, and then build up a new relationship between Japan and North Korea. He described relations between the two countries as at a standstill. He then added that, in talks with Kim Jong-un, he would like to resolve the nuclear and rocket issues and build a new relationship between the two countries.
However, on August 22 Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe agreed to continue their support for the sanctions against North Korea.
On August 27 South Korean media reported that Tomoyuki Sugimoto, a 39-year-old Japanese citizen arrested in North Korea and accused of espionage, had been released and deported to China. According to Kyodo, he arrived in North Korea at the beginning of August as part of a tourist group and was arrested after photographing a military facility in the port city of Nampo.
According to the KCNA news agency, the North Korean government’s decision was based on humanitarian considerations. Before he was released, the necessary investigations were conducted. Tomoyuki Sugimoto was kept under observation by the appropriate state bodies, which took steps to find out all the circumstances relating to his breach of North Korean law. Commentators in the South Korean media pointed out that this release was quite a rare event, and might lead to a breakthrough in relations between the two countries.
On August 28 the Japanese Cabinet approved the 2018 White Paper on Defense, in which several phrases relating to North Korean threat had been slightly amended. The expression “the new stage threat” was deleted from the white paper, but this does not alter the fact that North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities continue to pose a threat. The white paper points out that Japan is very interested in Moon Jae-in’s policies in relation to North Korea, but that it is in favor of the sanctions and putting a high degree of pressure on Pyongyang.
The KNCA news agency wasted no time in criticizing this paragraph. “Reality goes to prove that Japan does not want peace but the escalation of tension in the region including the Korean peninsula, and is making desperate efforts to worsen the climate of peace, the worldwide trend.”
On that same day, August 28, the Washington Post reported on a secret meeting between representatives of North Korea and Japan in July. During the meeting, which took place in Vietnam, North Korea was represented by Kim Song Hye, an official who is in charge of Korean reunification issues, and Japan was represented by Shigeru Kitamura, head of the Japanese intelligence services. Experts consider that these two positive developments – the prompt release of the arrested Japanese citizen, and the secret meeting between North Korean and Japanese representatives in Vietnam – are a hopeful sign that relations between the two countries will improve.
Shinzo Abe said, in an interview published in Sankei Shimbun on September 2, that he would like to speak with Kim Jong-un to resolve the problem of the kidnapped Japanese citizens. According to him, the dialogue between the USA, North Korea and Japan “is breaking down the barriers of mistrust”.
On September 10, during a meeting with Suh Hoon, the Director of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, Shinzo Abe said that the time had come for meetings with North Korea. Suh Hoon responded with a proposal that they combine forces to resolve the questions of relations between the USA, North Korea, Japan and South Korea simultaneously, and emphasized that Shinzo Abe’s role in issues relating to peace and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula was greater than it had ever been.
The second meeting between representatives of North Korea and Japan took place in Ulaanbaatar from October 6-8. Once again, Japan was represented by Shigeru Kitamura, from the intelligence services, who appears to have been received a promise that the problem of the Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean intelligence agents will be resolved. He passed on a message from Shinzo Abe, in which the Japanese Prime Minister reiterated his wish to meet with the North Korean leader. It is unclear how North Korea reacted to this.
In an interview with the Financial Times, published on October 8, Shinzo Abe said that, in his view, US troops must not be withdrawn from the Korean peninsula as part of the North Korean denuclearization process. As the Japanese Prime Minister explained, the American military presence is a major factor in the maintenance of peace and stability in East Asia. Shinzo Abe also said that he was ready to meet with Kim Jong-un in order to “break the shell of mutual distrust”.
On November 16 the KNCA news agency, as usual, criticized in the strongest terms the joint Japanese and American anti-missile tests and the first joint military exercises held by the Japanese self-defense forces and the British army in October. North Korea is also actively pursuing a claim in relation to the wianbu issue (concerning Japan’s use of Koreans as comfort women during the colonial period) and it is also angry that Japan is regularly seeking UN resolutions against North Korea in relation to human rights abuses.
In conclusion, we can make the following points.
- Japan is certainly afraid that, as the dialogue between North Korea and its neighbors progresses, it is at risk of being left out.
- However, so far it has not actually done anything, apart from making declarations. There is no evidence of any steps that could be seen as an invitation to start a dialogue. On the contrary, it continues to stand by its traditional position of opposition to North Korea.
- This has provoked justified criticism from North Korea, expressed in language typical of the mid-20th century: “The Japanese imperialists are behaving recklessly in an attempt to somehow distract attention from the crime of sexual slavery committed by the Japanese army so that their government can avoid being held accountable for these crimes as their moral worthlessness is revealing itself.”
- The main theme of the dialogue is to be the nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula, and the problem of the Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. As far back as September 17, 2017, Shinzo Abe promised to continue to do everything possible to resolve this issue. “For us this is a problem of the very highest priority, and I will make every effort to bring about a solution,” he said, in a meeting with the families of the kidnapped Japanese citizens.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“