Following negotiations in Stockholm, Japan and North Korea have reached a surprising agreement to address the abduction issue. Judging from past efforts, North Korea committed to a process that is unlikely to turn up much new information, while Japan offered some relaxation of sanctions and even the prospect of the resumption of aid. North Korea’s motives therefore seem less hard to understand; the question is what Prime Minister Abe is doing.
Some background. Japan formally claims that 17 citizens have been abducted by North Korea. During the Kim-Koizumi summit in September 2002, Kim Jong-il admitted to 13 abductions, offered a verbal apology, provided death certificates on eight (ultimately proven made up) and allowed five surviving abductees to travel to Japan on condition that they return. When Japan announced they would not return, talks broke down but resumed following the second Kim-Koizumi summit in May 2004. North Korea returned the cremated remains of two other abductees, including the case that had most caught Japanese attention (Megumi Yokota). When the remains were revealed by DNA testing to not be the two abductees, progress once again stalled amidst a peak of public outrage in Japan on the issue.
From that point forward, domestic politics on the issue ran amok and Japan’s position in the Six Party Talks was repeatedly hamstrung by insistence that North Korea address the abduction issue (the best analysis of this process is provided by Richard Samuels in an article for the Journal of East Asian Studies, linked here). Japan—or more precisely, the Japanese public—suspects that many more may have been abducted. The government claims that there are 860 unsolved disappearance cases where the possibility of abduction cannot be ruled out, and a special section of the National Police Agency has even put together a list of 405 such missing persons. Although it is highly unlikely that all of these individuals were abducted, the possibility provides at least some explanation—and some hope--for families grieving over mysterious disappearances.
The gist of the agreement is as follows:
- The DPRK will establish a "special investigation committee" that will consider not just the abductees but the remains of Japanese who have died in North Korea since 1945, their graves, and those Japanese who are still living in the country.
- The DPRK will provide the results of the investigation to Japan, sending back remains as well as Japanese survivors; it will also allow meetings—presumably with relatives in Japan--to resolve issues arising during the investigation process.
- Particularly since the 2009 missile and nuclear tests, Japanese policy toward North Korea has drifted toward a near-complete embargo (a recent overview of the sanctions efforts is contained in a useful Cabinet Secretary release). The agreement stipulates that by the time the investigation starts, Japan will lift its travel ban, loosen tight restrictions on remittances, and allow North Korean vessels to enter Japanese ports for humanitarian purpose. Early reports—including by Asahi—suggested that Japan would lift all unilateral sanctions against North Korea, leaving only the multilateral sanctions under UN Security Council resolutions in place. However, the Nikkei clarifies that this is not true, although Japan does hint at considering a resumption of aid “at the appropriate time.”
- The time frame for establishing the committee is set at three weeks, with Japan wanting results within one year. We expect that Japanese actions will unfold cautiously as the investigation moves forward, but Japan has offered a modest down payment.
What are Abe’s motives in seeking a deal at this time? My colleague Ellis Krauss pointed us to the figure shown below on Asahi's coverage of the abduction issue through 2011.
After peaking around the time of the two Koizumi summits, interest in the issue has steadily fallen. Prof. Krauss suggested several possible explanations that we elaborate here:
- Abe made his name on this issue and a hardline approach to North Korea in the 2000s, and he is revisiting it out of genuine desire to lay the issue to rest;
- Despite declining coverage, this could be low-lying political fruit. Coverage of the agreement in the Japanese media has been intense. (By contrast, there is some evidence that that State Department spokesman wasn’t even aware of the negotiations; May 27 video link here).
- Finally, there could be a broader strategy at work. Despite this blog’s skepticism about the Six Party Talks, there has been an intense diplomacy around their resumption over the last two months. In addition to the Stockholm talks, these include bilateral visits among most of the five parties—including China and South Korea—and a track 1.5 meeting between American and North Korean delegations in Mongolia (link here). Like Sheila Smith at 38 North, we are doubtful that this agreement is a prelude to an attempted grand bargain between Japan and North Korea; Japanese policy on North Korea will continue to be coordinated with the US and South Korea. But if nuclear talks were to resume, Japan’s position in them would not be held hostage to this issue.
All of this, however, depends on the North Koreans delivering at least something. The largest risk for the Abe administration is that the process yields nothing or even disinformation designed to relax sanctions and secure aid. If North Korea has nothing to offer, Kim Jong Un has miscalculated; we know from Koizumi’s experience that public and press tolerance for chicanery on this issue is extraordinarily low.