Why Japan’s bid for talks on North Korean abductions will be ‘political suicide’ for Kishida

“We are making approaches through various channels,” Kishida said. “It is extremely important that I myself take the initiative in building a relationship between the leaders.”

Families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, and their supporters, at a November 26 rally in Tokyo, where Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was among the 800 attendees. Photo: Kyodo

But Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an international-relations assistant professor at the University of Tokyo, said the chances of a Kishida-Kim summit were low as Pyongyang “will simply refuse to talk about the abduction issue”.

From 1977 to 1983, Japanese citizens were reportedly abducted from Japan by Pyongyang’s agents, mainly to teach Japanese language and culture at North Korean spy schools.

For a long time Pyongyang denied the abductions, but in 2002, during a meeting between former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the latter admitted to the abduction of at least 13 Japanese citizens, issued an oral apology and freed five of the victims.

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Ulv Hanssen, associate professor at Tokyo’s Soka University’s law faculty, said that given the “emotional nature” of the issue, it would almost be “political suicide” for Kishida if he met Kim without raising the abduction issue.

“We are dealing with real human beings, not abstract weapons systems,” he said, adding that the late North Korean leader admitted to the abductions in the hope of creating goodwill and trust in order to advance diplomatic normalisation talks.

The strategy however “completely backfired”, and North Korea’s “already bad reputation reached rock bottom and the Japanese began seeing North Korea as the pinnacle of evil”, Hanssen said.

“The lesson North Korea learned from this was that the abduction confession had been a disastrous miscalculation,” Hanssen said, and after that, Pyongyang “has shunned almost any dialogue about the abductions”.

Sakie Yokota (left), whose daughter Megumi was abducted to North Korea at age 13 in 1977, at a Tokyo gathering organised by Christians to support her campaign for justice. Photo: Kyodo

The only exception was in 2014 when both countries met in Sweden and where Pyongyang – in a bid to reduce tensions – promised to renew investigations into the abductions.

Even if there were still Japanese abductees in North Korea, Hanssen said the leadership had “nothing to win from revealing any information about them”.

“A revelation of new abductees would just rile up anti-North Korean sentiments in Japan and make normalisation an even more impossible prospect,” he said, referring to Tokyo’s condition that normalisation would only occur after the matter was resolved.

Hanssen added that North Korea’s recent missile testing and launching of a satellite were expected to complicate matters.

Even though North Korea is prohibited by several Security Council resolutions from carrying out nuclear or ballistic missile activity, it has launched three Satellite Launch Vehicles this year and 29 ballistic missiles, including four intercontinental ones.

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Last week, North Korea claimed it had successfully put a military spy satellite into space, after two earlier attempts failed this year. The launch came after a meeting in September between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim, during which Moscow offered Pyongyang help with its space programme.
The University of Tokyo’s Hinata-Yamaguchi said given North Korea’s current backing by both China and Russia, it would be “more difficult to bait [the North Koreans] into substantive dialogues that reverses the military threat they pose”.
Amid the ongoing war by Russia against Ukraine, Pyongyang is said to be supplying Moscow with weapons, in return for a range of military assistance, including advanced technologies.

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Apart from decades of economic assistance to North Korea, Chinese companies have reportedly helped North Korean workers find work abroad, while Chinese ships deliver sanctioned North Korean goods to Chinese ports.

These measures are aimed at helping cash-strapped Pyongyang evade a broad range of international sanctions designed to hamper its nuclear weapons programme, according to an Associated Press review of United Nations reports, court records and interviews with experts.

Yoichiro Sato, Asia-Pacific studies professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, said Moscow’s support for Pyongyang had “watered down” the sanction regime against North Korea, referring to the myriad of international measures including an arms trade ban and the freezing of assets belonging to individuals involved in the country’s nuclear programme.

“There is little Japan can offer to North Korea to dissuade it from getting closer to Russia,” Sato said, noting that Kishida’s gesture of wanting to meet the North Korean leader might be aimed at sending a message to South Korea.


Why nearly 100,000 people left Japan to move to North Korea

Why nearly 100,000 people left Japan to move to North Korea

Last Thursday, a court in South Korea said Japan had engaged in illegal acts when it mobilised “comfort women” around World War II, and ordered Tokyo to financially compensate the victims.
“[It] may be a subtle reminder to the so-far friendly President Yoon Suk-yeol that he has to handle this issue without seeking additional concessions from Japan,” Sato said.

In recent months, relations between South Korea and Japan – long strained over historical and territorial issues – have thawed due to their growing concerns about China’s greater assertiveness in the region and greater strategic pivot towards the United States.

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