There have been some positive signals lately from North Korea that it’s willing to blunt years of intransigence and engage with the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency on its nuclear weapons program.
Last month’s bilateral deal with the U.S., in which Pyongyang agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and implement a moratorium on its long range missile and nuclear tests in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid, brings hope to concerned regional powers that the North might be willing to return the stalled Six-Party Talks with transparency and an eagerness to strike a deal.
But despite this slight thaw, reports indicate that the Japanese government will extend its existing sanctions on North Korea, citing a lack of progress on resolving the issue of the return of its abducted nationals. Tokyo often channels its North Korea policy in silos, separating Pyongyang’s nuclear program from its bilateral dispute with the regime over the return of its kidnapped citizens. However, the issue has proven difficult to compartmentalize and continues to stymie Japan’s ability to become a meaningful player in international efforts aimed at nudging the North back to the diplomatic table.
The current sanctions that the Japanese government has in place are in addition to the international sanctions on the North as a result of its nuclear weapons program. The set of unilateral sanctions, implemented after Pyongyang’s nuclear test in 2006, are set to expire next month. The penalties effectively smother all bilateral trade between the countries. Unfortunately, the strong-stick policy has thus far driven the North farther away from a resolution on the abduction issue with Tokyo.
Japan is caught in a bind. While it supports U.S. efforts to bring North Korea back to the Six-Party Talks on one hand, the government is concerned that it may be shut out of future discussions on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, at least in terms of influence. This would hinder its ability to induce the Kim Jong-un to resolve the issue of its abducted citizens. For this reason, Japan can be expected to continue to apply unilateral pressure to Pyongyang through a separate track.