The Koreas

North Korea: Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong’s First Messages to Japan

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North Korea: Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong’s First Messages to Japan

What does the North Korean leadership have in mind?

North Korea: Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong’s First Messages to Japan

This photo provided on Aug. 14, 2022, by the North Korean government, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, delivers a speech during the national meeting against the coronavirus, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Aug. 10, 2022,

Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Kim Yo Jong, vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has traditionally been critical of both the United States and South Korea. On February 15, she turned her attention to Japan and issued a message.

In response to Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s statement at the Budget Committee of the Lower House that the current state of Japan-North Korea relations “must be changed boldly,” she stated, “It is my opinion that if Japan makes a political decision to open up a new way of mending the relations through its courteous behavior and trustworthy action on the basis of courageously breaking with anachronistic hostility and unattainable desire and recognizing each other, the two countries can open up a new future together.”

However, she went on to say that, “If Japan drops its bad habit of unreasonably pulling up the DPRK over its legitimate right to self-defense and does not lay such a stumbling block as the already settled abduction issue in the future way for mending the bilateral relations, there will be no reason for the two countries not to become close and the day of the prime minister’s Pyongyang visit might come.” (The DPRK is an abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)

This sets a high hurdle to clear before the two countries can have their first summit meeting in 22 years. The North Koreans are well aware that Japan cannot abandon the abduction issue and so their mention of it deliberately makes it challenging for Japan to move forward.

As already reported by the Asahi Shimbun, there is no doubt that Japan and North Korea have been in contact with each other in a third country since last spring, but in fact Japan has done no more than ask to be able to send a special envoy to Pyongyang. This is why North Korea is exploring the seriousness of Kishida’s intentions, not only on the abduction issue but also on whether it is has a broader vision for improving Japan-North Korea relations.

Kim Yo Jong, who reiterated her previous claim that the abduction issue “had already been settled,” concluded by saying that “[t]his is just my personal view only and I am not in the position to officially comment on the relations between the DPRK and Japan.” By refraining from making this a statement of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose words carry absolute weight, and instead making it the “personal view” of his sister, there is a possibility that North Korea’s response may change in the future depending on the Japanese position.

Some analysts believe that this exceptional statement was triggered by the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and South Korea, but the change in North Korea’s stance toward Japan should be viewed in the context of a series of developments, such as a statement by Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Pak Sang Gil in May 2023 and a condolence message from Kim Jong Un in January this year.

The statement issued in the name of Pak Sang Gil on May 29, 2023 asserted, “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 as it is intact 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 fact that this came from the vice minister of foreign affairs, an official who is high ranking both in name and substance, rather than a regular “researcher of the Institute for Japan Studies under the DPRK Foreign Ministry” or an “international commentator,” attracted more attention than did the relatively amicable nature of the message.

Then, on January 5, 2024, Kim Jong Un sent a message of sympathy to “Your Excellency Fumio Kishida” in connection with the Noto Peninsula earthquake. This was the first message that Kim had sent to a Japanese prime minister, so it came as a major surprise. Since then, the ruling party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, has studiously refrained from criticizing the Kishida administration by name.

The possibility that this was an attempt at catching Kishida’s eye and inducing new developments in Japan-North Korea relations can’t be ruled out. At the very least, there is no doubt that North Korea is more interested in Japan than it has been previously. The short-term intention is to separate Japan, the United States, and South Korea, but more important is the long-term perspective.

In 2018, only Japan expressed strong concerns about the first-ever North Korea-United States Summit, which was held in Singapore. When then-U.S. President Donald Trump, angered by North Korea’s attitude, spoke of canceling the summit, then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, welcomed the news. Subsequently, however, Japan continued to seek ways to obstruct the conclusion of any agreement between the United States and North Korea, working through John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security advisor at the time. It was not until sometime after the breakdown of the second summit in Hanoi that Abe, who had been asserting that “dialogue for dialogue’s sake is meaningless,” began to speak to Kim Jong Un about unconditional dialogue, a policy change that North Korea dismissed as “brazen-faced.”

With the possibility of Trump once again becoming president, North Korea may be looking to resume negotiations with the United States. However, it cannot afford to repeat the mistake of the Hanoi summit, and it has no intention of making concessions itself. Still, it is natural to think that if talks between the United States and North Korea were to resume, Japan-North Korea relations should also be improved to the extent possible to prevent obstruction from a hardline Japan. Although Japan does not have the influence to advance United States-North Korea relations, it remains more than capable of disrupting them.