Edgar Su / Courtesy Reuters Abe arrives in Bali to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, October 2013.

Abe's North Korean Advances

Why Japan Has the United States and South Korea Worried

Before the year is out, the world could witness Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. As absurd as the idea might sound, Abe has repeatedly indicated his willingness to visit Kim, provided that Pyongyang makes some concessions in the long-running saga of several Japanese nationals who were abducted and allegedly brought to North Korea decades ago. An Abe-Kim summit would be greeted with suspicion from the United States and South Korea, who might fear that Tokyo was falling into a North Korean trap meant to weaken trilateral deterrence efforts. North Korea’s intentions must always be assessed cautiously; however, if they do meet and Abe secures a face-saving political concession from Pyongyang, Japan could finally put an end to the Kim regime’s blackmail.  

During the 1970s and 1980s, 17 Japanese nationals were allegedly kidnapped off the west coast of Japan and other areas around the world by North Korean agents and brought to live in North Korea. In 2002, after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang, five Japanese citizens were returned. North Korea claimed that the remaining suspected abductees were dead, missing, or had never been taken to begin with. Koizumi visited North Korea once more in 2004, but Pyongyang insisted that the issue was closed. Abe, likewise, failed to break the stalemate during his first stint in office, from 2006 to 2007. It didn’t help matters that, only a month after he took office, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

In the years since, Japan’s relations with North Korea have only worsened. Additional missile and nuclear tests and stagnancy on the abduction issue have fuelled popular sentiment against North Korea. Japan bears some of the blame, too: a string of ineffectual leaders in Tokyo were unable to harness the necessary diplomatic flexibility to reengage with Pyongyang. Abe, who won a decisive victory to become prime minister in 2012, changed this trend. He has used this momentum to push forward on a number of dormant foreign policy issues, including restoring ties with North Korea.

In July, Abe offered his first real concession to North Korea by agreeing to lift some sanctions. The sanctions relief will focus on travel and the transfer of funds between Japan and North Korea. The Abe government also loosened regulations against North Korean ships entering Japan’s ports and promoted the exchange of humanitarian aid. Abe’s gesture was in response to North Korea’s agreement to create a special commission to look into the unresolved cases of abducted nationals -- a move that could indicate North Korea’s desperation for aid. North Korea promised to provide Tokyo detailed reports on missing persons in the late summer and early fall.

Abe has pressed the importance of breaking the deadlock between Japan and North Korea with his country’s allies and regional partners; he underscored its seriousness during his first trip to Washington after his election in late 2012. But there seems to be little support for Tokyo’s decision to engage. The Obama administration has urged Abe not to visit North Korea without consulting the United States beforehand. And, last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to repeat this point and to stress that it was important to retain a united front with South Korea against North Korea’s provocative behavior. White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes cautioned that Japan’s efforts should not affect the “multilateral sanctions that are in place with regard to de-nuclearization.”

South Korean leaders, meanwhile, insist that Japan is playing into a North Korean trap, intended to disrupt trilateral unity between Japan, South Korea, and the United States. After Japan lifted some sanctions against North Korea, the South Korean foreign ministry commented, “Any measures to be taken by Japan should be made in a way not to hamper international cooperation in curbing North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.” The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo even went as far as saying, “Japan is also seeking to use North Korea as leverage as it becomes increasingly marginalized by South Korea and China.” In addition to these criticisms, there are very real concerns that North Korea’s new probe into the abductions will not provide much new information or return any abductees alive. In other words, Japan will have undermined North Korean deterrence for naught.

Seoul and Washington are right to be concerned about deterrence drift. But they should be careful not to overreact to Abe’s search for a resolution on the abductions issue with North Korea. The argument that Abe is jeopardizing regional security for uncertain political gains is simply not credible. First, it overlooks Abe’s traditionally hawkish stance toward North Korea, dating back to his first tenure as prime minister. Abe supported some of the harshest sanctions against North Korea in 2006 when Pyongyang test-fired long-range Taepodong-2 missiles. He has remained tough since then, supporting broader unilateral sanctions against North Korea after subsequent missile and nuclear tests. Moreover, he has cited North Korea as one of the primary factors motivating a host of security and defense changes in Japan over the past year, including the introduction of the National Security Strategy and Tokyo’s cabinet decision to reinterpret its constitutional right to collective self-defense. 

Second, the Abe administration’s policy toward North Korea, though complex, is not conciliatory. Some critics cite Abe’s cautious reproach of North Korea’s short-range missile test into the Sea of Japan last month as evidence that he is too soft, but that argument rings hollow: he is not willing to dispose of months of diplomatic capital on the abduction issue unless North Korea crosses a true red line. If Pyongyang conducted longer-range ballistic missile tests or a fourth nuclear test, Abe would likely be forced to push for new sanctions, dooming his efforts on the abduction issue. Japan recognizes that flexibility and constant diplomatic metamorphosis is essential when negotiating with Pyongyang.

In addition, the loosening of sanctions will not diminish Japan’s adherence to the United Nations’ sanctions regime against North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program and missile tests. The Abe administration has publically communicated that message on a number of occasions but has not been as transparent on its strategy with the United States and South Korea as it might be. Indeed, fearing that Abe’s intentions had been misunderstood, Kishida flew to the United States earlier this month to reassure Washington that Japan would remain a reliable ally in the joint goal of deterring and, eventually, denuclearizing North Korea. Sanctions relief might have taken any regime change policy off the table for now, but, in any case, the partners already seem to have settled on a “deter and contain” approach rather than a “contain towards regime change” strategy anyway.

Third, critiques of Japan’s approach to North Korea are particularly perplexing given that the United States and South Korea have long criticized Japan for coupling the abduction issue with more pressing security issues, such as Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Now that Japan has delinked them, the United States and South Korea are advocating a return to the old approach. To appreciate Abe’s policies, South Korea and the United States need to understand the political nature of the abduction issue in Japan, where it continues to drive popular opinion. According to a 2013 survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office, nearly 90 percent of Japanese identify it as the most pressing issue in Tokyo’s relationship with Pyongyang. Abe’s approval ratings dropped below 50 percent for the first time since he took office in 2012, and he is desperately looking for a political victory to justify his seemingly risky foreign policy initiatives. The political appeal of a resolution -- even if it does not mean the return of the abductees -- cannot be discounted.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Japan’s olive branch to North Korea will achieve anything. Pyongyang could pull the rug out from under Abe at any time and -- even worse -- could embarrass Tokyo by stepping up nuclear provocations. But a positive conclusion of the talks could give more leverage to Japan. It would then be able to focus more on political and security issues relating to the Korean peninsula and Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs.

In reality, the sanctions relief last month was merely a symbolic step, one that followed months of incremental and low-risk diplomatic exchanges with North Korea. After lifting the sanctions, Japan tried to play down a high-profile meeting with North Korea by proposing an informal foreign ministers’ meeting on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum summit this month. Kishida will likely use the opportunity to communicate Japan’s concerns -- along with those of its partners in Seoul and Washington -- about North Korea’s destabilizing actions in the region. In other words, although Washington and Seoul’s caution is understandable, they should give Japan’s new strategy a chance.

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