What to Do with the Relations with North Korea?

Hitoshi Tanaka

1. What is North Korea for Japan?

North Korea is the gravest, real threat to Japan's security. There has been a historical recognition among the Japanese that the Korean Peninsula is critically important to Japan's security. The Korean peninsula repeatedly constituted an important scene in Japanese history --- Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea, an early Meiji political debate on an expedition against Korea, the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, and the annexation of Korea by Japan; it has been a key diplomatic battleground for Japan. Before Prime Minister Koizumi's 2002 visit to North Korea, I had engaged in a year-long negotiation with North Koreans. Their perception of Japan remained, superficially at least, one about the suzerain state that Kim Il-sung had fought through guerrilla warfare. Then I noticed that North Korea does not hold the international order in esteem; that incessantly threatened, North Korea is ready to resort to unlawful acts --- an extension of guerrilla warfare --- against Japan with which it has no diplomatic relations. When cornered, North Korea tends to assume a "so-what" attitude as if it really believes that it has nothing to lose. South Korea and Japan are always its potential targets for attack. Japan's national security has improved through the deployment of intelligence satellites, missile defense systems, the Act on Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Perilous Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan, and the new security legislation. However, given the deployment of Nodong missiles that can reach all of Japan and its development of nuclear weapons, North Korea remains the gravest threat, due partly to the existence of Korean Japanese residents who pledge allegiance to North Korea.

Japan's fundamental position in the post-war era was to support South Korea confronting the North within the framework of the Japan-US alliance. South Korea developed into an advanced industrialized country; its remarkable economic growth is known as the "Miracle on the Han River." As symbolized by Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy," the inter-Korean relations fundamentally changed from confrontation to reconciliation. In the years of inter-Korean confrontation, it was not realistic for Japan to negotiate with North Korea over the head of South Korea. But, following Kim Dae-jung's visit to North Korea and the North-South Joint Declaration (June 2000), it became a realistic task for Japan to engage in intensive negotiations with North Korea to resolve the pending issues. After assuming the post of Director-General of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in September 2001, I immediately saw Prime Minister Koizumi and emphasized, "North and South Koreas are heading for reconciliation; Japan's negotiations with North Korea to resolve the pending issues will contribute to peace in the region. To ensure Japan's security, we should also take actions to resolve the issues of abductions, nuclear weapons, and missiles and move toward the normalization of diplomatic relations." Thus, I obtained the Prime Minister's approval for launching negotiations with North Korea.

Japan's engagement with North Korea is a necessity in three ways: 1) Japan has to ensure its security through resolving the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues; 2) Japan has yet to promote the process of postwar reconciliation with North Korea as with Russia; 3) Engagement with North Korea is a significant part of Japan's efforts to stabilize the Korean Peninsula. Following the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, the US-DPRK Agreed Framework was established and survived until the early 2000s. The agreement reached by the Six-Party Talks, which was launched on Japan's initiative, failed to prevent North Korea's nuclear test in 2006. The Korean Peninsula issue has fundamentally evolved around US-North Korea nuclear negotiations. Neither North-South Korea relations nor Japan-North Korea relations can make progress unless they are structurally linked to the US-North Korea negotiations toward the denuclearization of North Korea.

2. Why is the "Comprehensive Resolution of Abduction, Nuclear, and Missile Issues" Imperative?

Japan's basic policy on negotiations with North Korea has been to "realize normalization through the comprehensive resolution of the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues." The background to this is as follows.

(1) To find a solution to the abduction issue through negotiations with North Korea, we must induce North Korea to admit that it is in its interest to work out a solution. The abduction of Japanese nationals is a crime committed by North Korea. In principle, North Korea must act with no quid pro quo to break through the current stalemate. Although we do not intend to leave the matter unresolved, we cannot provide funds for the return of the victims; the utmost we can do is to provide North Korea with a prospect of economic cooperation from Japan if normalization has been realized. On the other hand, since the nuclear and missile issues also need to be addressed for Japan's security, the solution of the abduction issue alone would not lead to normalization. Consequently, Japan should engage in comprehensive negotiations, referring to the prospect of economic cooperation following normalization. This was the keynote message behind Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to North Korea and the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration.

(2) To advance along this basic line of negotiations, we talked with North Korea and launched the Six-Party Talks. The dialogue mechanism was conceived originally as a four-party meeting of the United States, China, North and South Koreas. However, we persuaded North Korea to include Japan and Russia. Since Japan alone could not address the nuclear issue, it was necessary to deal with it through the Six-Party Talks. It was likewise essential to link the resolution of the nuclear issue with the Japan-North Korea normalization, incorporating the economic cooperation that North Korea desired. This basic line of negotiations was pursued at least until the September 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement, in which the six parties agreed to begin negotiations on: the denuclearization of North Korea accompanied by international verification; the Japan-North Korea normalization based on the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration; economic cooperation in the areas of trade, energy, and investment; and confidence-building measures.

(3) The above comprehensive negotiation framework collapsed with North Korea's nuclear test in June 2006 --- North Korea conducted another four nuke tests in 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017. Among the causes for the failure were: the United States and North Korea were unable to agree on concrete measures to verify denuclearization; the US Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Banco Delta Asia and froze North Korea's accounts. In any case, the United States and North Korea lacked mutual trust.

Today, with the escalation of North Korea's nuclear development, negotiations on the denuclearization of North Korea are effectively left to the United States and North Korea. I hope that the denuclearization of North Korea will become a reality under the leadership of the United States. Yet, Japan must also be deeply involved in the denuclearization efforts. Needless to say, North Korea's nuclear development is a grave security problem for Japan. While the international community will likely provide economic support for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, it is difficult for Japan to make an economic contribution with a prospect for the solution of the abduction issue.

3. What Constitute the "Resolution of the Abduction Issue" Signify?

In the negotiations toward Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to North Korea (September 17, 2002), Japan first demanded that information on the abductees certified by Japan's National Police Agency be furnished no later than by the Japanese premier's visit. North Korea refused the request, probably due to their suspicion that Japan might cancel the visit after receiving the information. Eventually, a package deal was agreed upon to implement as part of Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to North Korea, the signing of a Pyongyang Declaration, an apology by North Korea for the abductions, the provision by North Korea of information on the abductees, and thorough investigations. As a result, North Korea informed that five abductees were still alive while eight had died. The five survivors returned to Japan in October 2002, and their families also returned in May 2004. However, the subsequent dispatch of investigation teams and working-level consultations failed to obtain reliable information on the abductees other than those who had returned home.

Although North Korea holds fast to its assertion that the abduction issue has been resolved, the absence of evidence endorsing its explanation cannot change the assumption that all the abductees are still alive. In addition to the abductees, there are likely many Japanese in North Korea: Japanese women who married North Koreans and went to North Korea and those who went to North Korea of their own free will but were unable to return home. In any case, as mentioned earlier, a solution must be obtained through comprehensive negotiations. It would be irrational to assert that there will be no solution to the problem other than through the returning home of all the abductees, some of whom are considered dead. We should think about what will constitute a solution to the abduction issue.

In many cases, exhaustive investigations about those who went missing during a war are conducted by establishing a "reconciliation committee" or a "joint investigation committee" based on an agreement between the countries concerned. I think that a joint investigation committee should be set up by Japan and North Korea to examine information on individual abductees. It will take time to discover what happened to the Japanese victims. Yet, without thorough investigations, the Japanese people will not be satisfied. In addition to the abductees, Japanese wives of North Koreans and other Japanese nationals who wish to return home should also become the object of investigation. Their repatriation should be realized as soon as possible.

4. What is the Best Approach to the Japan-North Korea Normalization?

In the course of the negotiations on the Pyongyang Declaration, we continuously faced a difficult question as to what the best approach is to the Japan-North Korea normalization. North Korea claimed that Japan should "compensate" for the wartime damage North Korea suffered and that Japan should present the total amount of compensation. We refused by stressing that the formula of mutual waiver of claims and the economic cooperation formula adopted in the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea are non-negotiable; that it is out of the question to specify the amount of compensation. This was a stumbling block where the bilateral negotiation took the longest time, leading to repeated interruptions. Finally, both parties reached a compromise by setting forth in the Declaration the particulars of future economic cooperation.

North Korea's nuclear missile tests violate the Pyongyang Declaration. Nonetheless, it may be wise to respect the Declaration, a document signed by Kim Jong-il as Chairman of the National Defense Commission. It is not hard to imagine that another round of negotiations on the compensation issue would lead to a dead-end.

As in the case of South Korea, the normalization of diplomatic relations with North Korea should be achieved by concluding a basic relations treaty with Diet approval. However, if the resolution of the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues called imminently for a swift normalization of the bilateral diplomatic relations, it might be an option to first adopt a joint declaration, as was the case with the Soviet Union and with China, and to conclude a basic relations treaty later.

5. Roadmap for Japan-North Korea Relations in the Future

The Japan-North Korea relationship is a bilateral relationship that would likely evolve only within some larger framework. The first prerequisite is the progress of US-North Korea nuclear negotiations. The denuclearization of North Korea is the top priority for regional security. Since the solution of the abduction issue alone would not be sufficient to advance normalization or economic cooperation between Japan and North Korea, we must consider advancing negotiations with North Korea within the current denuclearization process. In this context, the first thing Japan should focus on is the resumption of US-North Korea talks. North Korea may want to hold a summit meeting, which, however, might become another Trump-Kim summit with no substantial result. North Korea is now in a serious economic crisis due to the Covid closure of the Sino-North Korean border and massive flood damages. North Korea will likely agree to practical talks in the near future.

On the other hand, Japan should also prepare to launch bilateral talks with North Korea. As is the case with US-North Korea talks, the ironclad rule for negotiating with North Korea is to conduct negotiations with someone who has access to the North Korean supreme leader. Ordinarily, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will serve as the point of contact. But only high-ranking officials of the Workers' Party of Korea or the military who are close to the supreme leader may deal with the issues of nuclear weapons, missiles, and abductions. Japan-North Korea talks are likely to focus on ways to resolve the abduction issue, but they must serve to present a vision for future normalization. Meanwhile, if there is no progress in US-North Korea nuclear talks, the path to Japan-North Korea normalization will be closed. In this context, Japan's support for the United States in its nuclear talks with North Korea will be significant.

It will be unwise for Japan to make it appear that the abduction issue alone interests her. A solution to the abduction issue is inseparable from the prospect of normalization and economic cooperation. But such a prospect may seem distant unless US-North Korea nuclear talks make progress. For many years Japan apologized to neighboring countries for some of its past conduct. The discovery of North Korea's criminal abduction of Japanese citizens has changed the situation; it stirred strong criticism of North Korea. In a sense, it may have helped the rise of conservative nationalism in Japan. That being said, Japan must not forget the cause of peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, if the Korean Peninsula issue enters a new phase in the future, Japan needs to create the domestic public opinion that the Korean Peninsula issue is important to Japan in terms not only of the abduction issue but also of her security.

Developments in the Korean Peninsula issue, including Japan-North Korea relations, may have the potential to dramatically change the regional situation in East Asia. Japan needs to formulate a strategy taking into account its relations with South Korea, the United States, and China. First of all, Japan cannot leave its relationship with South Korea as it is --- allegedly the worst ever since normalization. The North Korea issue is for South Korea the overriding issue on which the future of the South depends. Close consultations with South Korea over the North Korean issue are indispensable to Japan. At the very least, the framework between Japan, the United States, and South Korea must function to maintain cooperation among the three countries. Structurally, the more hardline stance the United States takes toward North Korea, the more North Korea will turn to Japan. Consequently, if the US-North Korea talks remain stagnant, we may find a way forward in Japan-North Korea relations. But what we must not forget here is the ironclad rule of "not doing anything against the interests of the allies." Koizumi's September 2002 visit to North Korea was opposed vehemently by "neocon" officials such as Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and Undersecretary of State Bolton. It was primarily the mutual trust between Prime Minister Koizumi and President Bush that helped overcome the difficulties. Secretary of State Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Armitage shared the recognition that "the United States cannot oppose Japan when she tries to solve her own problems." They also believed in the assurance that Japan would not do anything against US interests. The United States has ears to listen to Japan's opinion on the North Korean issue.

The North Korean issue has the aspect of mitigating the confrontation between the United States and China. Both countries pledged cooperation at COP26. Should US-China cooperation progress on global issues, the bilateral confrontation regarding other problems will become controllable. Both the United States and China share interests in denuclearizing North Korea. China would regard the collapse of the present North Korean regime and the resulting loss of a buffer against South Korea under US influence as a potential threat to its security. Yet, China is aware that North Korea's becoming a full-fledged nuclear state would decrease Chinese influence over the country and endanger the control of radioactive materials. China is also well aware of the possibility that a nuke-armed North Korea would trigger a nuclear domino leading to nuclear armament in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Undoubtedly, China is against North Korea's nuclear armament. Since China's cooperation is essential to the denuclearization of North Korea, the promotion of US-China cooperation will be eminently beneficial to that end.

The final landing point for the North Korean nuclear issue or the last stop of the roadmap for Japan-North Korea normalization must be the restructuring of the Six-Party Talks. It is a universal hope that all the stakeholders on security in the Korean Peninsula and surrounding regions --- Japan, the United States, China, Russia, and North and South Koreas --- will gather together to develop the dialogue mechanism into a future framework for confidence-building.

(Chairman for Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd )

(Provisional translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate.)

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