In a surprise move, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo sent an envoy, Isao Iijima, to Pyongyang in mid-May 2013 to speak to the North Korean leaders. Though the immediate reason to dispatch the envoy was not clear, it is presumed that Japan is keen to resolve cases of Japanese abducted over past decades by North Korean agents. Iijima is the Cabinet Secretariat Advisor in the Abe administration and no stranger to North Korea. A decade ago, Iijima was a top aide to then Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and held talks twice in Pyongyang with North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. No wonder, he was received at Pyongyang airport by the vice director of the North Korean foreign ministry’s Asian Affairs department, Kim Choi Ho with a warm handshake.
For the past several months when diplomats from Washington, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo have remain engaged discussing the North Korean issue, this unilateral decision to send an envoy by Tokyo to Pyongyang surprised many. Tokyo’s decision is seen in other major capitals as swimming slightly against international attempts to isolate the North. According to the NHK, Iijima’s visit is an attempt to find a solution to the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea during a bizarre campaign in the 1970s and 1980s, a matter that still carries a huge emotional change in Japan. When Koizumi visited Pyongyang in September 2002, North Korea admitted its agents kidnapped Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies in Japanese language and customs. Some of those snatched were allowed to return to Japan along with children who were born in the North, but Pyongyang said the rest of them had died. However, many in Japan believe the North is still holding some and Pyongyang’s perceived refusal to come clean has derailed efforts to normalise ties. As the Prime Minister, he is not averse to a summit meeting with the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if that could help resolve the long-pending abduction issue.
What could have prompted Abe at this point of time to take recourse to this? One reason could be that Abe wanted to gain political mileage in the upcoming elections to the House of Councilors in July and that he wanted to convey to the electorate that he is keen to address to the abduction issue that has made no progress for decades. If the current popularity rating is any indication, he is likely to win the elections. He may then try to revise the country’s pacifist post-war Constitution.
During Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang in 2002, Abe, then chief Cabinet secretary, accompanied him and won the release of some abduction victims. He became prime minister himself later on the strength of that success. North Korea in turn is likely to be grateful for any international engagement amid tightening global sanctions. No wonder, in a rare move, the North Korean state media immediately announced Iijima’s visit.
As a secretary to the prime minister during the Koizumi administration, Iijima was deeply involved in the Pyongyang-Tokyo summits in September 2002 and May 2004 and is believed to be maintaining informal communication channels with Pyongyang through a pro-North Korean organization in Japan. When the Democratic Party was in power, Tokyo resumed talks about the abduction victims with Pyongyang in August 2012, four years after the previous talks stalled. But negotiations in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, in November 2012 were again suspended when the North launched a space rocket.
It is likely that Tokyo notified Washington of the visit in advance. At a seminar in Washington on May 2, Keiji Furuya, the minister in charge of the abduction victim issue, said his country would seek its own way to “pull out a thorn” from its relations with North Korea. He said Japan should act on its own, and the U.S. “fully understands” that position.
Tokyo believes Pyongyang’s decision to accept contact expresses a willingness by the new North Korean leadership to improve relations. Iijima reportedly urged North Korea to reinvestigate the whereabouts of 17 Japanese people who were kidnapped during the bizarre abduction campaign. Five other victims were returned to Japan in October 2002, one month after Koizumi-Kim meeting. The fate of the remaining 12 is not known. The North has so far failed to fulfill a promise made in August 2008 to reinvestigate the abductees’ fate. The two sides are now believed to be preparing to resume talks. Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties. The Japanese government maintains that it cannot normalize ties with North Korea without a resolution of the abduction issue along with North Korea’s missile and nuclear issues.
In Pyongyang, Iijima held talks with North Korea’s 2nd highest official, Kim Yong Nam, who is president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s parliament. He also met Kim Yong Il, Secretary of the governing Workers’ Party of Korea in charge of international relations. On his return, Iijima told in Beijing that he had serious and long hours of talks with North Korean officials but gave no details about the talks. Japan is a participant in now-dormant six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and its failure to inform its ally the US, or South Korea, about Iijima’s visit beforehand raised eyebrows. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said cooperation among Japan, the US and South Korea is extremely important for resolving North Korean issues. Taking Japan’s official line, Kishida said that all outstanding bilateral issues including abduction, missile launches and nuclear development must be resolved comprehensively.
Taking advantage of Tokyo’s peace overtures, Pyongyang seems to have responded to thaw icy relations with Japan at a time when ties with the US and South Korea have gone into deep freeze after nuclear and missile tests. The US and its two Asian allies have been putting pressure on Pyongyang to drop its nuclear ambitions and join the international community. Even Beijing has also taken a firmer line with its sometimes wayward ally, offering rare public rebukes that analysts said revealed frustration at Kim Jong-Un’s administration. As was during his first term as Prime Minister when Abe showed a pragmatic side in foreign relations and reached out to South Korea and China, this time too he is trying to reach out to Pyongyang. While declining to discuss Iijima’s visit, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman, clarified Japan’s North Korean policy and stressed that dialogue and pressure are the best means towards a comprehensive resolution of various issues, such as abduction, the nuclear and missile issues.
Abduction a national obsession
In Japan, North Korea abductees are national obsession and Abe knows how to make political advantage out of this. The abduction has remained as the biggest ongoing story in Japan since the 1970s. The families of the abductees are a de facto lobby for a rising national mood of dismay and hawkishness in an Asian neighbourhood where China is flexing its economic muscle and North Korea is testing nuclear bombs. It is a mood that matches the strong patriotic sentiments of Prime Minister Abe.
Like the Vietnam MIA lobby in the US, or the World Trade Center family victims, the abductees have become a kind of moral sounding board. And in Japan, their status has grown to martyrs, survivors, patriots, and celebrities – all rolled into one. Abductees and their families are interviewed on politics, nuclear weapons, Asia, and all manner of issues. Reacting to Japan’s obsession on the abductee issue, some intellectuals say that Tokyo is trying to create a victim status for itself, and to deflect a more honest accounting of the wrongs Japan committed in the 20th century.
Reaction from South Korea was on expected line. It dubbed the trip “unhelpful” to international efforts to forge a united front against Pyongyang. The US too expressed its surprise. Glyn Davies, the US special representative for North Korea policy, signaled displeasure with the trip and told reporters in Tokyo that he had not heard about it and that little, if any, coordination had taken place between Tokyo and Washington beforehand. Some observers speculated that Japan was duped by a North Korean ploy aimed at undermining international efforts to put pressure on it.
The abduction issue is one of Abe’s biggest political priorities. But the decision to send Iijima on a secret mission to Pyongyang was something unlike Abe. His display of flexibility in dealing with Pyongyang is inconsistent with his past firmness and closeness with the US. In view of the elections to the Upper House in July, Abe may be playing to the gallery of domestic politics but he is also risking unwanted diplomatic consequences.
Abe may be making a strong political statement by Iijima’s Pyongyang mission but his prioritization of the abductee issue over denuclearization and moratoria on missile tests is not shared by other countries with which Tokyo is working to pressure Pyongyang on its nuclear and missile programs. At a time when all members of the Six-Party Talks were on the same page on a united stand on Pyongyang, Abe’s unilateral decision to approach Pyongyang caused to have crumbled this international show of unity against North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.
While the US and South Korea were critical of Abe’s decision, China lauded Abe’s move, hoping it could further ease tensions. There is always a risk that Pyongyang will use this divergence in positions to its advantage as it has done in the past. Pyongyang sees its nuclear program in its national interests; so does Abe the abduction issue. Abe would not move further towards denuclearization and normalization before the abduction issue is resolved. If Pyongyang shows some flexibility, Abe, as already indicated, may plan a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang is likely extract a large amount of money and will leverage the differences among the members of the Six-Party Talks to its advantage. Iijima’s trip will also allow Pyongyang “to proclaim to the world that it is not isolated in the international community”. Some analysts see this as a Japanese ploy to divide the region.
Does it mean that Abe is going soft on North Korea? Far from it, he is just pursuing his own brand of independent diplomacy, keeping Japan’s national interests above regional issues. It will remain a huge challenge for him how he balances his regional policy vis-à-vis Japan’s alliance with the US. President Barack Obama would worry that Abe’s North Korea policy is at variance with what both committed on North Korea when they met in Washington in January.
Abe’s domestic political agenda seems clear with no confusion. He is aware that even the faint promise of good news on the abductions will bring political dividends, just two months before the upper house elections. The popularity that propelled him into the prime minister’s office the first time round owed much to his close personal association with the abductees’ families. For many years, the abductee issue has been such a highly emotional issue in Japan that no politician could afford to ignore it. Even during the now-moribund Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions that began in 2003, Japanese negotiators raised the abductee question even when it seemed irrelevant to other parties – the US, China, Russia, and South Korea.
Apart from efforts to resuscitate the economy that is ailing for the past two decades with bold economic reforms, he wants to amend the Article 9 of the Constitution. The first step to do that is to win the Upper House elections and win a majority that will enable him for smooth law making. If Abe succeeds in doing what he intends to during his remaining three and half years in office, he might be criticized for conducting diplomacy on his own terms by sacrificing broader regional goals but in the process, Abe would have defined a new course for Japan’s role in the world. How Abe displays his leadership qualities to define that course would be worth-watching.