Japan and North Korea: Bones of Contention
Japan and North Korea: Bones of Contention
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
North Korea Policy under the New South Korean President: More Continuity than Change
North Korea Policy under the New South Korean President: More Continuity than Change
Report / Asia 3 minutes

Japan and North Korea: Bones of Contention

Relations between Japan and North Korea continue to deteriorate due to concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and past abductions of Japanese citizens.

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Executive Summary

Relations between Japan and North Korea continue to deteriorate due to concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and past abductions of Japanese citizens. Nearly a decade and a half of efforts at normalising relations between the countries have faltered due to Pyongyang's unwillingness to give up that program or come clean over the abductions. For Japan, normalisation would help preserve regional stability and represent one more step toward closure on its wartime history; for North Korea, it would potentially produce the single greatest economic infusion for reviving its moribund economy. Indeed, the prospect of normalisation with Japan is one of the leading incentives that can be offered to North Korea in a deal to end the North's nuclear programs.

North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile development, along with its history of infiltrating agents into Japan, have elevated the country's importance in Japanese defence planning, particularly after it tested a missile that over-flew Japan in August 1998. The North Korean threat has been cited as justification for missile defence and satellite development, constitutional revisions, and reinvigoration of the military alliance with the U.S. In fact, Japan's military posture is moving away from homeland defence towards readily deployable forces, although to date they have assumed non-combat-related roles.

While the nuclear issue is the paramount concern of policy-makers and security experts, the abduction issue is the primary focus of the Japanese public. Consequently, the government will not have full freedom to negotiate on the nuclear issue until it can satisfy its public that the abduction problem has been resolved or at least will be resolved in parallel. Conciliatory gestures by the North on the abduction dispute have backfired, particularly when claims that cremated remains were from one of the victims were said to be false. The techniques used to test the remains have come under fire from independent experts, further complicating the issue. A solution remains elusive, as it is unclear whether North Korea can make a sufficient accounting of its past crimes to appease Japanese public opinion. The North must do better in providing a full accounting, but ultimately it will also take an act of political will by the Japanese government to conclude the wrangling over the issue.

Politicians and civic groups opposed to normalisation have seized on the abduction issue to push for sanctions against Pyongyang. Policy-makers, however, remain reluctant. The low and declining volume of bilateral trade calls into question how effective such sanctions would be in inducing a change in North Korean behaviour, while imposing them would reduce Tokyo's leverage. Thus, unilateral sanctions are unlikely, though Japan would probably go along with any multilateral program. For now, Tokyo is content with "virtual" sanctions, new regulations which have the effect of restricting access to Japanese ports by North Korean vessels.

The pro-Pyongyang organisation for Korean-Japanese, Chosen Soren, continues to play a role in bilateral relations, although it has been shrinking in both numbers and economic influence. Often pointed to as a key source of foreign currency for the Kim Jong-il regime, the amounts sent have been steadily declining, while the government has tightened regulations. Nonetheless, a combination of resentment at discrimination, ethnic pride and institutional momentum keep Chosen Soren alive. Given North Korea's failed economy and international pariah status, as well as the social discrimination which Koreans in Japan face by identifying themselves with North Korea, the decline of Chosen Soren is perhaps less surprising than its continued relevance.

While the Japanese government is deeply concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapons, there is an overwhelming consensus in Japan that it would not pursue its own nuclear option, at least in the short to medium term. As long as the U.S. nuclear umbrella is credible, a nuclear capability would have more costs than benefits for Tokyo.

As prospects improve for resuming the nuclear talks, Japan should both dangle the carrot of normalised relations and be prepared to wield the stick of sanctions. To win public support for such an approach, it will need to present North Korea with clear guidelines for what must be done to solve the abduction issue. Showing how much normal relations with Japan could help North Korea if these two issues were resolved may be the best way for Japan to play a major role in finally bringing Pyongyang's nuclear threat to an end.

Seoul/Brussels, 27 June 2005

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