A New Turning Point On The Horizon: Possible Reconciliation Between Japan And North Korea – Analysis


On New Year’s Eve 2024, the west coast of Japan (Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture) was hit by a powerful earthquake measuring 7,6 on the Richter scale, killing 241 people and leaving 12 missing, 1,300 injured and tens of thousands of homes damaged.

Five days later, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, sent a message to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Kim expressed his “deep sympathy and condolences” to Kishida and the bereaved families of the victims. Kim’s message, published in the state’s main newspaper, was brief and in many ways unusual. It was also unusually conciliatory, given that the two countries do not have official diplomatic relations and that North Korean state media regularly fiercely attack Japanese officials and the Japanese state. More than a month later, the moves of the Japanese and North Korean leaders hint that a salto mortale is in sight and that reconciliation between the two conflicting states is possible.

Kishida’s initiative

Kishida stepped up efforts to normalize relations this year after promising signs from Pyongyang. “We must take a bold step to change the status quo,” he told the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives of the Japanese Parliament on February 9. Japan “is making various concrete efforts”, he added. Speaking in parliament on February 13, the Japanese prime minister told lawmakers that “it is extremely important for me to take the initiative to build ties at the highest level” with Pyongyang and that Tokyo “shouldn’t waste a moment.”

Kishida’s office declined to comment on his boss’s intentions, but pointed to his recent statements in an interview when he said that he “has different approaches” to N. Korea and how he is determined to hold direct talks with Kim “without setting any conditions”. Kishida even earlier, for example in a speech before the UN General Assembly last September, stated that he would advocate for a summit with the North Koreans to resolve the issue of abducted Japanese citizens.

The last meeting between the Japanese prime minister and the North Korean leader was in 2004 in Pyongyang, when Junichiro Koizumi met with Kim Jong-il. Even then, the issue of abductions was on the agenda, which was not resolved. Due to the delicacy of the situation, Japan has not officially informed the US of a possible summit with the DPRK.

Kim Yo-jong’s conciliatory rhetoric

Kishida’s statements were very positively received in Pyongyang. In a February 15 statement, Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and a member of the DPRK’s State Affairs Commission, cautiously praised Kishida’s “positive” statements about his intention to build quality relations with Pyongyang. Kim told the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that there was “no reason” for Pyongyang and Tokyo not to maintain close ties.

“I think there would be no reason not to evaluate his recent speech as positive if it was motivated by his real intention to boldly break free from the shackles of the past and promote relations between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Japan,” Kim said.

In this context, Kim Yo-jong asserted that Kishida’s visit to Pyongyang is possible only and exclusively if Japan stops challenging North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs and does not bring up the “already resolved” issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. Kim said if Japan makes a “political decision to open a new way of repairing” relations between the two countries, Pyongyang and Tokyo “can open a new future together”. She insisted that her comments only reflected her “personal point of view”, however, it is hard to believe that she made comments contrary to her brother’s views.

Such a thing would be scandalous for the North Korean regime With the phrase “personal opinion”, the member of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK wants to absolve her brother of responsibility for the eventual failure of Japanese-North Korean rapprochement.

North Korean motives for cooperation

Kim’s statements appear to be a proactive move by the North Korean government, which intends to support Kishida’s idea of a summit in response to the US trilateral partnership, S. Korea and Japan, and in light of the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Cuba, which took place the day before, on February 14.

Cuba has been an important partner of N. Korea. The two countries are bound together by Marxist ideology and anti-Americanism. The establishment of relations between Seoul and Havana is definitely not a good sequence of events for Pyongyang. Although the partnership with Havana will continue, North Korean policymakers will have to respond with new foreign policy quips to strengthen their international standing. One of them is a potential rapprochement with the Japanese. In addition, cooperation with Japan could significantly help the dormant North Korean economy.

The important issue of abductions

Fairly speaking, it will be very difficult for Japanese officials to agree to the conditions presented by Kim Yo-jong. On February 16, Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Japanese government’s chief spokesman, declined to say how Tokyo viewed the comments by the most powerful womanof DPRK, but stressed that Japan cannot accept that the abduction issue has been resolved: “Japan intends to comprehensively resolve outstanding issues, such as nuclear and missile issues and abductions,” Hayashi told interested reporters.

The issue of abductions is the main issue that has burdened the relations between the two countries for half a century. The abductions, bizarre in their own right, took place during the 1970s and 1980s as part of the North Korean regime’s efforts to train spies with knowledge of the Japanese language and culture. The Japanese claim a total of 17 abductions took place, while the North Koreans admit only 13.

In 2002, the hermit kingdom apologized and returned five abductees, while claiming the rest had died. Many in Japan still believe that some of the abducted Japanese are still alive and that the Kim regime is using them for its own purposes. Public opinion polls consistently show that the abduction issue is a top priority for Japanese voters, said Jeffrey J. Hall, an expert on Japanese politics at Kanda University of International Studies. “Almost every Japanese conservative politician wears blue badges every day to express their belief that the abductee issue is extremely important and has not been adequately addressed. “Kishida cannot simply sidestep the issue and hold a bilateral summit that would only focus on other issues,” Hall added.

Japanese motives for cooperation

Any progress on the abduction issue or the easing of tensions in the Far East could give Kishida much-needed political points. Support for his government is only around 25% amid economic problems and the ruling party’s spectacular corruption scandal involving the embezzlement of funds amounting to several million yen. As many as 10 politicians from Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were charged.

Japan’s next general election is scheduled for October 2025, but time will pass quickly and Fumio Kishida must think about his political future. If relations were to normalize, Japan could help the North to atone for its colonial occupation from 1910 to 1945, primarily through economic investment. The Japanese have a great interest in economic cooperation because the DPRK is rich in economic potentials that have not been used.

Furthermore, the normalization of relations with N. Korea can increase Japan’s diplomatic influence in the international community. By participating in diplomatic efforts to resolve the problem on the Korean Peninsula, Tokyo can strengthen its position as a regional power.

The fragile trilateral alliance of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington

Most analysts predict that Tokyo and Pyongyang will struggle to find a way to normalize relations, in large part because former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has declared the abduction issue resolved. However, Sj. Korea may nevertheless begin diplomatic engagement with Japan with the intention of creating a rift in the recently renewed trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the US.

In August of last year, a historic summit of three states was held in Camp David with the aim of curbing N. Korea and China. Under the conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, South Korea is pursuing closer diplomatic and military ties with Japan, Korea’s former colonial occupier, while at the same time tightening relations with the North and abandoning the policy of unifying the Korean people. Kim’s goal is to slow down the creation of a serious anti-North Korean pact in a certain way, especially to thwart the military cooperation of the three countries, which represents a concrete threat to his regime.

The fact that the cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the USA is fragile and very sensitive to other events, mostly due to the unresolved ghosts of history and the changing political climate in the USA, which changes depending on the presidential administrations, is very helpful to Kim, which is also noted by Robert Ward, senior fellow for Japanese security studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Kishida will keep both Seoul and Washington abreast of developments with Pyongyang to minimize the risk of unwanted surprises. “Kishida will visit Seoul in March and Washington in April – these will be important signals of alignment between the three countries, especially if there is a Kishida-Kim meeting,” Ward concluded. Although there are currently no visible tensions between the three countries, they are certainly present under the spotlight.

US support for relaxing Japanese-North Korean relations

The US government’s deputy special envoy for the DPRK, Jung H. Pak, recently told the media that she supports Japan’s efforts to get closer to N. Korea. This surprised some observers. However, there can be no surprises. Pak showed the clear intention of the US government to relax relations on the Korean Peninsula.

Unlike Trump’s, Biden’s administration has proven to be quite inept in dealing with the North Korean issue and has not made any progress in relations with that country during the entire mandate. At the same time, the Americans are concerned about the unquestionable improvement of North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear programs, as well as the sale of weapons and military equipment to Russia, which it purchased and uses in the war in Ukraine.

This was confirmed by Christopher Johnstone, a former CIA and White House expert on Japan, who said that high-level contact between Tokyo and Pyongyang “could be useful” given the lack of communication between the US and N. Korea as well as the relationship between the two Koreas.

On February 20, the Pentagon’s deputy spokesperson, Sabrina Singh, pointed out that Washington would welcome talks between Japan and the North if their engagement leads to stability in the region. Apparently, the Biden administration is ready to leave the initiative to the Japanese to do something about N. Korea when it already has no idea how to improve relations with the DPRK. It should be taken into account that the election year is underway and that the Biden administration wants to calm the situation on the Korean peninsula so that Biden has a better chance of re-election. Trump’s North Korea policy turned out to be one of his greatest triumphs and increasing tensions with DPRK are going in Trump’s favour.

A possible Japan-North Korea summit

Despite the problems of abductions, the North’s nuclear and ballistic programs, it is not impossible for the Japan-North Korea summit to actually take place. If these issues are left aside (the North Koreans reject denuclearization talks since nuclear status is enshrined in the DPRK’s constitution), the road to a summit is wide open. Both Kishida and Kim would profit if the summit were to take place even if nothing decisive was agreed upon, as the mere holding of the summit is an indication that a change in relations is on the horizon. Most importantly, the summit would give a strong confirmation to both Kim and Kishida that they are important actors in the global order and would improve the international reputation of the two statesmen and their countries.

Even if the summit does not take place, the two sides have nothing to lose because diplomatic communication can reveal the thinking of North Korean and Japanese diplomats so that a concrete solution can be reached later. Through dialogue with N. Korea, Kishida will gain political points, and the North Koreans will have the opportunity to find a way to ease international economic sanctions and drive a wedge into Japan’s relations with the S. Korea and the USA. The Juche regime has to deal with economic problems caused not only by sanctions but also by the corona crisis. It is the economy that is the main issue that bothers Kim, because external aggression by a foreign power is unlikely, while an internal rebellion by a disaffected population can never be completely ruled out, no matter how strong the intelligence and security apparatus is.

Influence on other countries

If the summit takes place, it will affect other countries as well. Stabilization of relations and less weapons testing on the Korean Peninsula will benefit the Biden administration ahead of the election. The Chinese could also benefit from the dialogue, which would show that the regime they support is not irrational and that the North Korean leaders are ready for talks in order to seek peace in the Far East.

Of the great powers, only the Russians could lose, since the calming of relations on the Korean peninsula would direct the world’s attention more towards the Ukrainian war. This does not favor Russian ambitions in Ukraine. It turned out that the renewal of the war in the Holy Land in October helped the Russian war effort, as Western countries sent weapons and money to Israel, and not so much to Ukraine.

On the other hand, Russia may also prefer calming relations in East Asia, and the military cooperation with N. Korea could progress even more. South Korean President Yoon’s cabinet could suffer a heavy blow from the rapprochement of Japan and North because it would show that the Japanese government is more capable of calming the situation and finding a dialogue with the North than the South Korea. South Korea’s status and reputation in Asia and the global arena would definitely weaken as Tokyo would prove more capable than Seoul. In addition, parliamentary elections in South Korea are scheduled for April. If Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) loses and fails to win a majority in the National Assembly, his remaining three-year term could be severely limited by opposition in parliament.

Calming tensions on the Korean Peninsula

The North Koreans would certainly use the summits in Japan to show the world that the unification of the two Koreas is impossible due to the ideological fanaticism of the South Koreans, who in recent years have focused on sanctions and military force, not on negotiations. The Yoon administration’s logical response to the summit would be to tone down its rhetoric and engage in a policy of thawing relations with the North. It would be logical that the removal of tensions on the Korean peninsula should be mostly done by the Koreans themselves, and not by foreigners, including the Japanese. However, today the Japanese more than anyone else can help calm tensions and build regional stability in East Asia.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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