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Room for Progress on the Japanese Abductees Issue With North Korea?

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Tokyo Report

Room for Progress on the Japanese Abductees Issue With North Korea?

How Japan can play the role of offering the carrot.

Room for Progress on the Japanese Abductees Issue With North Korea?
Credit: Flickr / John Pavelka

September 17 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang on the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. In 2002, then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi secured the release of five abductees after a summit in Pyongyang with his counterpart Kim Jong-il. Since then, however, the two governments have made limited progress. With North Korea’s military provocation, including its missile launch last week and a successful sixth nuclear test, the abductee issue has been overshadowed. However, this may provide a good opportunity to re-think the carrot approach to North Korea by renegotiating the abduction issue. A comprehensive deal that incorporates the issues of nonproliferation, missile technology, and the abduction issue will be the key to move forward with North Korea.

On September 14, a ballistic missile launched by North Korea flew over northern Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. It was the second time in less than three weeks that a North Korean missile flew over Japan, defying the international pressure on its nuclear and missile programs. This came about after the UN Security Council unanimously approved additional sanctions on North Korea early this week. The trajectory of the launch was similar to the one conducted in late August. However, the recent launch flew a range of 3,700 kilometers, surpassing the 2,700 kilometers conducted on August 29. What this successful intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) launch demonstrated was that North Korea has the ability to strike the U.S. territory of Guam, though the accuracy still remains questionable. U.S. B-1 bombers stationed at Andersen Air Force base in Guam make up a key aerial force should U.S. President Donald Trump order a military strike on North Korea. These bombers have been seen regularly over the Korean Peninsula in recent months. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strongly condemned the missile launch and called on the international community to unite and fully implement the UN sanctions.

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and the missile test on September 14 suggest that U.S. efforts to impose UN sanctions by engaging with the reluctant Chinese and Russians have not deterred North Korea’s military provocations. Assuming that the sanctions will properly be implemented by all countries including China, current and additional sanctions could collapse the North Korean economy and its government. This is a scenario no country wants, and the United States and its allies will have to provide an exit strategy for a North Korea that thinks it has been backed into a corner. It may be difficult to have North Korea dispose of all its nuclear weapons at once, but the first step is to stop its nuclear development and prevent a nuclear attack. There are some in the United States that argue that it may be time to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and focus on deterrence. This can, however, lead to a nuclear arms race in the East Asia region especially in South Korea where there is more public support for nuclearization. Negotiating the abductee issue and potential economic cooperation combined with the coercive measures can then become a viable solution.

The Japanese government has officially recognized that 17 of its nationals were abducted in the 1970s and ’80s and taken to North Korea to teach Japanese language and culture to help North Korean agents blend in while operating in Japan. The National Police Agency of Japan, however, believes there could be up to 883 Japanese nationals that have been abducted by North Korea. Pyongyang claims that eight of the 12 still-missing Japanese have actually died. However, Japan does not believe this allegation due to the fact that the DNA of the returned bodies does not match the DNA of the missing Japanese nationals. Missing abductees include Megumi Yokota, who was 13 when she was abducted on her way back home from school in Niigata prefecture in 1977.

The Stockholm Agreement reached in 2014 launched a committee in Pyongyang led by the head of its Ministry of State Security to reinvestigate the whereabouts of the missing Japanese nationals. Japan saw this act as a demonstration of Pyongyang’s intention to look into the issue and consequently lifted some of the sanctions it had previously imposed on North Korea. In response, North Korea resumed its investigation. Japan hoped that the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement would provide leeway to return all the remaining Japanese nationals to their homes. However, Pyongyang has failed to submit a full report or make any progress on the situation. Instead, Pyongyang has continued to provoke the international community with repeated missile launches and nuclear tests. In response, Japan has reinstated sanctions and imposed new ones. North Korea has reacted by dismantling its investigative committee, claiming that Japan’s actions are tantamount to scrapping its initial agreement. As a result, the Stockholm Agreement seems to have been dropped, and the negotiations to return the abducted citizens have returned to square one.

It is important to note that although both Tokyo and Pyongyang accuse each other of not upholding their promises, neither government revoked the Stockholm Agreement. Granted, the agreement has suffered a setback due to the nuclear and the missile issues, but both countries can still return to the 2014 agreement. Japan should stress that the two countries could improve relations with each other based on the conditions set forth in the Stockholm Agreement.

Adding more punitive sanctions alone cannot secure the safe return of the abducted nationals, nor will it bring North Korea directly back to the table. In order to ensure a return to dialogue, Abe will have to be ready to discuss an aid package with Pyongyang. With the threat of North Korea continuing its provocative missile testing, including missiles fired across Japanese territory, it may seem unlikely that an aid deal with Pyongyang will gain much support in Japan. It would be much easier for Japan simply to apply pressure on Pyongyang by using the threat from North Korea for Japan’s own strategic hedge to develop its own missile defense system. However, conducting closed-door meetings to prevent Pyongyang from manipulating media coverage will not only allow Japan to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, but will also reduce the risk of miscommunication. It will be difficult, but a matter requiring strong will.

Returning from a recent visit to Pyongyang, a former professional wrestler turned Diet member Antonio Inoki criticized the United States and the Japanese for their stick only approach. “One of the biggest purposes of my visit was to prevent severing a channel of communication with the North, because it’s Japan who is currently shutting the door,” Inoki said. “It’s easy to apply pressure, but it’s really difficult to relieve tension afterward.”

The average age of the remaining 12 abductees is around 67 years old, and the average age of their parents is about 90. The longer negotiations stall, the less chance the families will have to reunite with their loved ones and the more North Korea will have to give up. Therefore, if Japan wants to ensure the return of the abductees and reject the notion that the problem of North Korea is a deterrence issue instead of a nonproliferation issue, it is critical for Japan to use this incentive to take the role in providing a much-needed carrot strategy. A delegation from Japan, including members of the House of Councillors and a brother of Megumi Yokota, spoke on September 12 in a D.C.-based think tank to urge the United States to place North Korea back on the State Sponsored Terrorism list.

John Taishu Pitt is a recent MA graduate from American University where he focused on security and trade relations in East Asia. His main focus is in Japan.​