Japan in a bind over North Korea

Posted in Japan | 07-Mar-07 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

Japan's Chief negotiator for the DPRK-Japan Koichi Haraguchi (L) shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Song Il Ho at the Japanese embassy before their meeting in Hanoi March 7, 2007.

TOKYO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may find himself in a box of his own construction over how to deal with the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea and his own comments regarding Imperial Japan's recruiting (or coercion) of women to serve as prostitutes for soldiers during World War II, an issue that particularly animates South Korea.

As Japan and North Korea are to kick off two days of working-level talks in Hanoi on Wednesday aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations, Abe may face an increasingly deep dilemma stemming from his choosing to make Tokyo's top-priority goal in dealing with Pyongyang resolving the issue of the reclusive Stalinist state's past abductions of Japanese citizens rather than denuclearization.

Despite recent significant progress on the nuclear standoff, Abe, a staunch anti-Pyongyang hardliner, has vowed to keep up pressure on North Korea over the abduction issue. Japan has also refused to join the other participants in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear-weapons program - the United States, China, Russia and South Korea - in offering energy aid to the country.

However, as the US, Japan's most important ally, has made a major shift in policy toward North Korea from confrontation to dialogue recently, there are some concerns here that Japan might find itself left out in the cold. China, Russia and South Korea have all consistently advocated a conciliatory approach to North Korea since the talks started in 2003.

To be sure, Washington has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of Japan's isolation and has given assurances that it will continue to coordinate its North Korea policy closely with Tokyo. But some Japanese remain unconvinced and even feel as if their nation has had the ladder suddenly taken out from under it.

If Pyongyang actually makes significant progress toward denuclearization, pressure may mount further at the six-party talks and elsewhere for Japan to ditch its policy of carrying a stick without offering any carrots, even without any progress on the abduction issue. But doing so would be politically risky for Abe.

His harsh stance on the abduction issue earned him a high degree of public popularity in Japan, enabling him to take the helm of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister last September.

To be sure, the public support for Abe's cabinet has been precipitously plummeting recently because of scandals involving some cabinet members, casting a dark cloud over his political fortunes ahead of the crucial House of Councilors election in the summer. But most Japanese still support Abe's hardline stance toward North Korea over the abduction issue. Many have found Pyongyang's actions unforgivable, lighting a nationalist fuse here.

According to a recent opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun national daily, the disapproval rate for the Abe cabinet rose 5 percentage points to 41%, while support dropped to 36% from the previous poll in January. It is the first time that the non-support rate has been larger than the approval rate since Abe formed his cabinet last September.

Meanwhile, another recent opinion poll, conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun national daily, showed that 81% of those polled support the Abe government's policy of not providing any economic and energy aid to North Korea until progress is made on the abduction issue.

Tokyo-Pyongyang talks
"North Korea must address our concerns with sincerity on the abduction issue," Abe has said, "Japan will be the one to decide whether these bilateral talks were successful and brought progress." But it remains unclear what Japan would consider "progress".

Abe's predecessor made two whirlwind trips to Pyongyang, first in September 2002 and again in May 2004. During his first summit with Koizumi, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted that agents of his country had abducted some Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train communist spies.

Pyongyang continues to insist that of the 13 Japanese it abducted, eight later died. But it has failed to provide convincing proof of the deaths. Japan suspects that not only some of the eight but many other Japanese kidnap victims may still be alive. The other five abductees were allowed to return to Japan shortly after the first Koizumi-Kim summit. Japan now formally recognizes 17 Japanese nationals, including the five returnees, as having been abducted by North Korea.

Abe recently met with the five Japanese kidnap victims who were repatriated and vowed to press North Korea in the bilateral normalization talks over the abduction issue. The Japanese government has been demanding concrete information on the abductees, the repatriation of any surviving abductees, and the handover of culprits responsible for the acts. But Pyongyang has insisted that the abduction issue has already been settled. In the Hanoi talks, Japan is expected to ask North Korea to change its stance and reinvestigate the issue.

Japan will be represented by Koichi Haraguchi, the Japanese ambassador in charge of bilateral normalization negotiations, and North Korea by Haraguchi's counterpart, Song Il-ho. The abduction issue probably cannot be resolved in one meeting and further working-level talks will likely follow, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki has said.

There is expectation within the Japanese government that North Korea will accept requests to open the reinvestigation and provide information about the abductees, by setting a certain time limit.

Shiozaki, Abe's top spokesman, has said, however, that Japan will not regard a mere promise to reinvestigate and provide information as progress. Japan is deeply distrustful of North Korea, particularly because, Japanese officials say, most of the data and explanations previously offered by Pyongyang were false. Among such false data and explanations, they say, is the case of the ashes submitted by Pyongyang as those of Megumi Yokota, one of the abduction victims, but found not to be hers through DNA analysis in Japan in 2004.

If North Korea does not change its stance that the abduction issue has already been settled and does not even respond to the demand for the reinvestigation, the bilateral normalization talks will likely stall.

Japan's fear of isolation
Since the February 13 agreement at the last round of six-party nuclear talks, key figures from China and Russia have visited Tokyo. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing visited Tokyo immediately after the agreement. He said, "China understands that Japan has certain 'matter of interest' regarding North Korea," referring to Tokyo's desire to resolve the abduction issue.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov expressed Russia's understanding of and support for Japan's policy of not taking part in energy aid for Pyongyang until progress is made on the abduction issue. But these remarks by Chinese and Russian officials are widely seen in Tokyo as nothing more than diplomatic lip service.

There are some concerns in Japan that if the Japan-North Korea working group on bilateral normalization ends up lagging behind the four other working groups within the six-party framework, Japan may find the abduction issue being shelved while being asked by the other participants in the six-party talks to contribute aid to North Korea.

Even some within Abe's LDP call for Tokyo to ease its get-tough policy toward North Korea. Taku Yamasaki, the chairman of the party's research commission on security affairs, who visited Pyongyang in January seeking improved ties through dialogue, released a statement immediately after the nuclear deal at the six-party talks, in which he said, "It's only natural for Japan to contribute its fair share. There will be no progress by only applying pressure."

The possibility of removing North Korea from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism was expected to be brought up and discussed in two days of working-level talks between the United States and North Korea in New York. In April 2004, the US added the abduction issue to an array of reasons for including North Korea on the list.

To be sure, discussions on the US list of terrorism-sponsoring states could force Pyongyang to address the abduction issue. But there are some concerns in Japan that Washington and Pyongyang could proceed to take North Korea off the list without any progress on the abduction issue.

Immediately after the nuclear agreement, US President George W Bush assured Abe in a telephone conversation of his commitment to resolve the abduction issue and said Japan would not be left out in the cold. Vice President Dick Cheney, known for his particularly hardline stance toward Pyongyang, visited Japan a week later. Cheney told Abe that the US respects Japan's position and wants "to seek a resolution of the tragic case of Japanese abductees". Cheney also met the parents of one of the abductees.

In the latest in a series of efforts by the Bush administration to assuage Japanese concerns, John Negroponte, the US deputy secretary of state, also said in Tokyo last week, "When it comes to such issues as lifting of sanctions or delisting North Korea from the sponsors-of-terrorism list, those are issues that we simply agreed to begin to discuss as part of this process that was launched by this initial actions agreement" at the six-party talks.

Sex-slavery issue
Meanwhile, Abe seems to have shot himself in the foot with recent controversial remarks that were widely taken as an attempt to evade Japan's responsibility for Asian women forced into sex slavery for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. The international uproar over his remarks may provide North Korea with fresh ammunition to lash out at Japan's wartime acts. It may also result in the loss of some international support for Japan's hardline stance on the abduction issue.

Significantly, the "comfort women" issue has emerged as not just a matter between Japan and Asian nations conquered or colonized. In the US, Democratic Congressman Mike Honda and some powerful Republicans submitted a non-binding draft resolution to Congress urging the Japanese prime minister to 'formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner' for using "comfort women" before and during the war.

Tokyo has protested the draft resolution, saying Japanese prime ministers have repeatedly offered apologies, but it may pass the Congress now controlled by the Democrats since mid-term elections last November. Four similar bills failed to reach a full lower-chamber vote in past years under the Republican majority.

Abe said on Monday that there is no need for Japan to apologize again over the issue, even in the event the US Congress passes the resolution. "The draft resolution is not based on objective facts, nor is it built upon the Japanese government's responses so far,' Abe said. But Abe reiterated that he will maintain the government's 1993 statement acknowledging and apologizing for the forced recruitment of 'comfort women'.

That seemed only to muddle the issue, since the premier said there was "no evidence to prove there was coercion", implying that the 200,000 or so comfort women voluntarily served as prostitutes. If that is the case, why did Japan officially apologize for its actions?

Abe's remarks drew angry protests, especially from South Korea. Foreign Minister Song Min-soon reacted immediately, saying Abe's remarks were "not helpful" and that he must face up to the truth. Abe's denial of the Japanese military's direct involvement in the coercive recruitment of "comfort women" came on the same day that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun urged Japan to be more sincere in addressing its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

In August 1993, then chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, a dovish politician who now serves as Speaker of the House of Representatives, issued an official government statement acknowledging Japan's responsibility and apologizing for the issue of "comfort women". Abe's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki, stressed at a press conference on Monday that the government's basic stance of upholding the 1993 statement remains unchanged.

"We do not plan to revise or withdraw the statement,' Shiozaki said, and accused the media of misinterpreting Abe's remarks. While emphasizing that the statement acknowledges that there was coercion "in the broad sense',' Shiozaki said the premier meant that the Japanese military did not forcibly and physically take women away in accordance with the "narrow definition" of coercion.

The flare-up has come at a particularly awkward time for Tokyo, as it could cast doubt on Japan's claim to moral high ground on human rights vis-a-vis North Korea, one of the world's most repressive states. It may also result in the loss of some international support on the abduction issue.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]