Japanese bigwig on surprise Pyongyang visit
TOKYO - For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the current surprise visit to North Korea by a heavyweight politician from his own ruling party could hardly come at a worse time.
Advocating the need for "dialogue" and "persuasion", Taku Yamasaki, a 70-year-old former vice president of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), arrived in Pyongyang from Beijing on Tuesday for a trip that is expected to last five days.
Meanwhile, Abe is making a whirlwind tour of major European capitals to drum up support for his hardline stance and increased pressure against Japan's reclusive neighbor amid concerns that Pyongyang might be readying another nuclear test.
Abe and other government officials quickly expressed displeasure and took pains to distance themselves from Yamasaki's trip, saying the government has nothing to do with it, and its tough stance against Pyongyang remains unchanged. Many, even within the LDP, have more bluntly criticized the trip as "dual diplomacy" and a "publicity stunt".
During a gathering in his home city of Fukuoka last Friday, Yamasaki said, "Some might say it is dual diplomacy or buttering up [North Korea], but I believe that we need to engage in dialogue and efforts to persuade the country."
But Yamasaki's critics say his visit might just play into the hands of Pyongyang. They say it could send a wrong message to the international community, especially China, Russia and South Korea, key members of the six-party talks, which are taking a softer approach than the United States and Japan toward North Korea.
North Korea extended an invitation to Yamasaki last summer at a time when he was calling for direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang to resolve the standoff over the nuclear issue, something strongly demanded by Pyongyang but rejected by the US administration of President George W Bush.
Abe expressed displeasure at Yamasaki's Pyongyang visit on Tuesday, immediately before leaving for Europe. "While he may have various thoughts as a lawmaker, I would like him to be well aware of the fact that Japan is imposing sanctions because of the nuclear and missile issues and, more important, on the abduction problem," Abe said. "Japan is pressuring North Korea to sincerely respond to the nuclear, missile and abduction issues. I'd like him to understand it."
The premier has a reputation as a hardliner on Pyongyang, especially over the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies. This has earned him a high degree of public popularity in Japan, enabling him to take the helm of the ruling LDP and government to succeed Junichiro Koizumi last September. Many in Japan have found Pyongyang's actions unforgivable, lighting a nationalist fuse here.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki also said he had told Yamasaki by telephone while he was still in Beijing that his visit would run counter to the government's policy.
"I told him, 'It's undesirable for a Diet [parliament] member, a representative of the people, to visit North Korea, as we've banned national-government officials from visiting the country in principle and asked the [Japanese] people to refrain from visiting the country,'" the top government spokesman said. "It was not a move linked to the government. He took the action in a private capacity."
According to Shiozaki, Yamasaki told him he would visit North Korea as head of the LDP's research commission on security to "promote diplomacy by legislators". "I'll discuss implementation of the Pyongyang Declaration" with North Korean officials, Shiozaki quoted Yamasaki as telling him.
That declaration was signed by then prime minister Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during Koizumi's first visit to Pyongyang in 2002. The two leaders pledged to work together to resolve pending issues between the two countries with a view to ultimately normalizing diplomatic ties. The document also contained a moratorium on missile launches. The declaration has already become a dead letter, however, in the wake of Pyongyang's missile launches and nuclear test.
While in office, Koizumi made two whirlwind trips to Pyongyang, first in September 2002 and again in May 2004. During his first summit with Koizumi, Kim admitted that agents of his country had abducted some Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pyongyang continues to insist that of the 13 Japanese it abducted, eight later died. But it has failed to provide convincing proof. Japan suspects that not only some of the eight but many other Japanese kidnap victims are still 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.
Tokyo's basic policy is that Pyongyang will not be offered aid or normal diplomatic relations until the abduction issue is resolved. The Japanese government has been seeking concrete information on the abductees and demanding that any surviving abductees be repatriated. Japan and North Korea held bilateral talks on the abduction and security issues as well as normalizing relations early last year, but the negotiations have since stalled.
Yamasaki is visiting Pyongyang apparently in hopes of breaking the deadlock in Japan-North Korea relations over Pyongyang's nuclear test and past abduction of Japanese nationals. Yamasaki previously met with senior North Korean officials in Dalian, northern China, in April 2004 to discuss the abduction issue.
A longtime ally of Koizumi, Yamasaki is believed by many to be hoping to pave the way for another trip by the former premier, something he urged on him last month. But Koizumi has not made it clear whether he has any intention of making another pilgrimage to Pyongyang. Some pundits say he is not enthusiastic about the idea because it would be tantamount to faulting the government of Abe, whom he virtually hand-picked as his successor.
Yamasaki's Pyongyang visit is reminiscent of a trip there by a high-powered joint delegation of the LDP and the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party (JSP) in September 1990. The mission was led by Shin Kanemaru, a former LDP kingmaker who took the party vice presidency the following year, and Makoto Tanabe, vice chairman of the JSP, who also became JSP chairman the following year.
Kanemaru and Tanabe were given a red-carpet welcome by the then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, the late father of Kim Jong-il, and they adopted a three-party (LDP, JSP and Workers' Party of Korea) declaration, which paved the way for opening negotiations the following year on normalizing diplomatic ties.
But the declaration sparked an immediate barrage of criticism in Japan because it stated that Japan apologized and pledged compensation not only for its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula but even for what Pyongyang claimed were the losses it had suffered for 45 years after the end of World War II.
But there are big differences between Kanemaru and Yamasaki. The former wielded unrivaled influence in Japanese politics as mentor of former prime minister Noboru Takeshita, who led the then-largest LDP faction. By contrast, Yamasaki just heads a small intra-party faction and his political influence is limited. He has also distanced himself from the Abe government. Yamasaki set out on a Pyongyang trip even without knowing whom he would be able to meet in the North Korean capital.
Yamasaki ventured into Pyongyang apparently in hopes of having a chance to meet with the supreme leader Kim. But it remained to be seen as of Thursday whether Yamasaki's much-coveted encounter would take place.
On Sunday, Yamasaki told reporters that although North Korean officials he would meet had not yet been decided, he at least wanted to hold talks with Song Il-ho, ambassador in charge of diplomatic normalization talks with Japan. He called Song "a friend".
When Japan announced sanctions in response to North Korea's test-firing of missiles last July, Song harshly criticized the Japanese move as "unreasonable" and warned that it could have catastrophic results. In addition to Song, the Japanese politician might be able to meet with Kim's right-hand man, First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju.
As of Thursday noon, it remained to be seen how warmly Yamasaki would be greeted by those North Korean figures he does see. But one thing is sure: he will not have it as good as Kanemaru. Even if he were able to meet with Kim, he would very likely return to Tokyo empty-handed, not only because of his limited political influence at home but because of the current gloomy situation surrounding the two countries.
Kanemaru's September 1990 Pyongyang trip led to the release the following month of two crew members of the No 18 Fujisan Maru cargo ship - Captain Isamu Beniko and Chief Engineer Yoshio Kuriura - after seven years of detention. However, Yamasaki has no chance of bringing back any surviving Japanese kidnap victims if, as Tokyo claims, there are any.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is email@example.com.