Addressing the UN General Assembly, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pressed rewind and expressed his desire for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The overture last week was the same as last year. In between, Kishida has suggested high-level talks to set up a summit and North Korea has responded promptly and positively. But it also attached a caveat.
“There is no reason for the DPRK and Japan not to meet, if Tokyo is not being shackled by the past,” said the North’s vice foreign minister.
Therein lies the stumbling block: the past. In the 1970s and 1980s, Pyongyang’s agents kidnapped Japanese, some of whom they used as teachers and translators. Their fate in North Korea has been the “foremost priority” of successive Japanese cabinets since the years of late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the hawkish conservative who mentored Kishida.
Abe had three principles on the abduction issue: It is Japan’s task of foremost importance; the normalization of relations with North Korea is impossible without the resolution of the issue; and under the premise that all the abductees remain alive, Japan demands the return of all of them.
It is debatable whether Kishida genuinely intends to pursue a breakthrough in the long-stalled dialogue with Pyongyang or is simply parroting his predecessors to boost his mediocre public opinion poll ratings. Still, Kishida has reason to continue his overtures.
North Korea is cozying up to Russia and relentlessly developing a nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, relations with South Korea are frozen. There is irony there. Japan hopes Seoul will stop mentioning that Korean women were abducted and enslaved in Japanese wartime brothels, but the Japanese government refuses to look past the kidnapping of Japanese civilians by a foreign government.
Citing the 2002 Japan-DPRK Declaration in Pyongyang, Kishida told the UN gathering that his government seeks to normalize relations with North Korea, through comprehensively resolving outstanding issues of concern such as “the abductions, nuclear and missile issues, as well as settlement of the unfortunate past.”
Abe’s principles on the abduction issue represented a backlash against his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi’s summit with Kim Jong-il, the late chairman of North Korean National Defense Commission and the father of the North's current leader, in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002. Not surprisingly, Abe was accused of being hypocritical, given his denial of Japan’s responsibility for the abduction and sexual slavery of tens of thousands of women from Korea and elsewhere during World War II.
During the summit, the late Kim admitted for the first time that his country was behind the abductions of Japanese nationals and apologized. The summit produced a joint declaration, in which Japan expressed “remorse and apology” for the damage and suffering caused by its past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea promised to prevent any further abductions. They also agreed to resolve the nuclear and missile issues and work toward normalizing diplomatic relations as soon as possible.
That same day, however, a bombshell revelation followed to see the historic summit taking an unexpected turn. North Korean officials revealed five abductees were alive and eight were dead. The five living abductees were brought back to Japan later that year, supposedly temporarily, but all decided to stay. Their children returned as well.
The reported deaths of abductees and the grief of their families stoked public anger against the North, as the media made intensive coverage of their stories. The resentment weighed on Hitoshi Tanaka, director of Asian diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry, for his year-long, secret pre-summit negotiations. The media accused him of being “too pro-North Korea.” Haunted by the fallout of the issue, Tanaka eventually resigned from the Foreign Ministry in 2005.
Tokyo believes that at least 17 individuals were kidnapped by North Korean agents. It has sought the return of 12 abductees, based on the assumption that these 12 are still alive. Some family members of abductees have formed an alliance with conservative politicians to oppose normalization negotiations with Pyongyang. Abe spearheaded these moves.
“At the state funeral of Abe on Sept. 27, 2022, Prime Minister Kishida pledged to continue Abe’s policy on North Korea, but as long as his principles on the abductions issue remain unchanged, it is impossible to normalize relations with Pyongyang,” says Haruki Wada in the foreword to the Korean edition of his 2022 book, “Thirty Years of Japan-DPRK Negotiations: A History.”
A prominent academic and progressive activist, Wada served as general secretary of the National Association for Normalization of Japan-DPRK Relations, which was founded in 2000 and is set to be dissolved at the end of this year. As he acknowledges, the book traces how the efforts for normalization of ties with North Korea have failed over the last three decades, with a focus on the political clashes between opposing groups in Japan. The North Korean nuclear and missile program and responses by concerned countries provide a complex backdrop and crucial intervening factors.
The abductions are a “time-sensitive human rights issue,” as Kishida noted. Time is running out for the family members of abductees, with many in advanced age, requiring urgent action. At the same time, with dialogue at standstill toward Washington and Seoul, Pyongyang may consider talking with Tokyo to use Japan as a middleman between Washington and Pyongyang in place of Seoul.
In any case, if a summit materializes, Kishida may have to face Kim, who is in a more formidable position than he was in when he met former US President Donald Trump four years ago. Now, with Beijing and Moscow aligned to give him better support, Kim may be tougher to deal with. And President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul may have to pause and look back on his pugnacity -- and a lost opportunity.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.