Three notable events involving North Korea recently have left the Japanese government of Kishida Fumio feeling somewhat unsettled.
First, North Korea notified the Japan Coast Guard of its plan to launch a military reconnaissance satellite. A resolution adopted by the International Maritime Organization assembly requires member states to provide prior notification to coordinating countries in member territories before launching satellites. Japan is the coordinating country for Northeast Asia but was not notified of planned satellite launches in April and December 2012, and in February 2016.
Viewed in isolation, this event could be interpreted as a demonstration of willingness on Pyongyang’s part to abide by international rules. However, on the same day, May 29, the second event occurred, namely the issuing of a statement by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Pak Sang Gil indicating a willingness to hold talks with Japan. While it would appear from his background that he is the vice minister responsible for Asia, this is the first time that the name of this individual has come up in the context of diplomatic relations with Japan. Previous announcements regarding dialogue with Japan were mostly attributed to a “researcher of the Institute for Japanese Studies of North Korean Foreign Ministry.” The latest announcement, however, came from the vice foreign minister, a senior government official both in name and reality.
It is notable that the tone of the announcement was unusually mild for North Korea. Pyongyang’s habit of late has been to address prime ministers of Japan by their name alone. This time, the level of politeness moved up a notch, addressing the Japanese leader as “Prime Minister Kishida.” The kind of name-calling to which former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was subjected by North Korea, such as “idiot” and “good-for-nothing,” was absent. Instead, the style was consistently and uncharacteristically polite.
This expression of readiness to engage in dialogue came in response to Kishida’s remarks at the “Citizens’ Rally to Demand the Immediate Return to Japan of All Abductees at the Same Time” on May 27, stating that “Japan will engage in high-level consultations while reporting directly to me,” to bring about summit-level talks as soon as possible. Dealing with the North Korea issue has been the sole prerogative of the prime minister ever since the days of former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, yet it is the new expression “directly to me” that has elicited a response from Pyongyang.
On the subject of a dialogue, Vice Foreign Minister Pak Sang Gil stated, “We are not sure what Japan is going to do and what it wants.” Park added, “We know that the prime minister [Kishida] has expressed his desire for the ‘Japan-DPRK summit without preconditions’ whenever he has an opportunity after he took power, but we do not know what he really wants to get from it.” Pyongyang is seeking to determine how serious Kishida is, and what actual steps he intends to take.
Kishida is calling on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to engage in summit talks “without preconditions,” while North Korea wants to know the “preconditions” that could allow talks to be resumed and material progress to be made.
The following passage is often reported in Japan: “It is the stand of the DPRK government that if Japan tries to make a new decision from a broad perspective of recognizing each other … in conformity with the changed international trend and the times, not being shackled by the past, and seeks a way out for improving the relations, there is no reason for the DPRK and Japan not to meet.” The statement “there is no reason for the DPRK and Japan not to meet” seems to bode well for talks actually taking place. At the same time, North Korea stated that the abduction issue has been “resolved” and it has no intention of changing its stance, instead urging change on the part of Japan.
To place this sudden talk of dialogue into context, we can’t rule out the possibility that contact between Japan and North Korea behind the scenes has been initiated. Be that as it may, the fact that there have been no significant advancements is precisely why talks are now being proposed to sound out the true motive of the Japan side. Some observers have noted that Pyongyang is seeking to drive a wedge between Japan, the United States, and South Korea, given that ties are becoming increasingly strained. The effectiveness of such a move, however, remains doubtful.
Rather, this should be viewed in terms of Pyongyang beginning to sound out the true motive behind such Kishida statements as, “the Government of Japan seeks to normalize its relations with North Korea through comprehensively resolving outstanding issues of concern, such as the abductions, nuclear, and missile issues, and settling the unfortunate past, in accordance with the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration of 2002,” and “I believe that it is critical that both Japan and I make proactive efforts and build relations between leaders.” It is crucial that Kishida’s statements address the possibility of normalizing diplomatic relations by emphasizing the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration signed 21 years ago.
The third point to note is the shift regarding Yokota Megumi, who has become the symbol of the abduction issue. In late May, a third party is said to have informed the South Korean abduction victims group that Megumi’s daughter, who resides in North Korea, “wants them to lay flowers” on the grave of Megumi’s father “in her name.” If this is to be believed, then given that Megumi’s mother had met her granddaughter just once, nine years ago, in Ulaanbaatar, it is a sign that North Korea has begun trying to unsettle the families of the aging abductees.
Such a shift, however slight, is the first in eight or nine years. Pyongyang’s sudden response was unexpected, and now Kishida must demonstrate that he truly means his consistent assertion that “the abductions issue is the highest priority for my Cabinet.”