North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Resolving the Abduction Issue

Mitoji Yabunaka

Mitoji Yabunaka, director-general of the Asia and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of Japan's Foreign Ministry, leaves for the six-party talks in Beijing, Aug. 29, 2003 (Liu Jin/AFP-Getty Images).

The six-way talks held in Beijing about North Korea’s nuclear development program ended on Aug. 29. In his closing summation, the meeting’s chairman indicated that the talks would continue in hopes of finding a peaceful solution to the issues involved.

Even if there was no sudden rupture at the talks, there was no real breakthrough, either—in terms of concrete measures to solve the issue or of the date, time, or location for the next meeting. Although the meeting just put off the problem, it was still important as a turning point. We can now say we have entered a new phase.

The Japanese government concluded that the outcome was better than expected, as North Korea basically agreed to continue the six-way talks and showed a willingness to try to resolve the problems between Japan and North Korea during future conferences. These problems include the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents, of whom five were allowed to return to Japan a year ago. [In the 1970s, North Korean agents kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens from Japan, putting them to work tutoring North Korean spies in Japanese language and culture. In October 2002, five of the abductees were allowed to return to Japan for what was originally scheduled to be a brief visit. They have not returned to North Korea, and some are demanding that their children now be allowed to join them in Japan.—WPR]
The Japanese government has urged North Korea to reach comprehensive solutions to the nuclear and abduction issues, both in any future six-way talks and in bilateral discussions. But from the government we can also hear of the voices of caution against North Korea’s diplomatic strategy. What’s more, if the United States starts pursuing strong action, including economic sanctions, any resolution of the abduction issue could be jeopardized.

How can Japan utilize the framework of the multinational and bilateral dialogue to resolve the issues at stake in a peaceful manner? Japan’s diplomatic strategy toward North Korea has entered a crucial stage and is being put to the test.

Japan has embarked on the road of “dialogue and pressure” with North Korea, which includes bilateral conferences about the abduction issue, by means of drawing the North to the multinational talks.

At the same time, Japan has insisted to the stubborn U.S. government that it promise the North that if North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons program, the reward will be an assurance of nonaggression, aid in the energy sector, and economic support. In this way, by showing the North what can be gained, the United States, Japan, and South Korea managed to keep a unified posture in the talks.

Japan made clear that it stood with the United States in resolving the North Korean issue. The two countries’ delegations even stayed at the same hotel in Beijing. On the way back to the hotel on Aug. 27, the Japanese representative, Yabunaka Mitoji, of the Asian and Pacific Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, shared a ride in the car of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly and heard of the outcome of the United States-North Korea talks. All of this shows the world the strength of the alliance between the United States and Japan.

The Japanese government is afraid that there will be no progress during coming six-way talks, that the voices of the hawks in the United States will gain strength, and that the United States might push for accusatory resolutions and economic sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. Japan also fears that the current process of trying to find a solution to the abduction issue through bilateral talks in the context of multinational talks might collapse.

Because of this, Yabunaka spoke directly to North Korea during the meeting, saying: “You should also see the constructive aspects of the U.S. proposal!” He also appealed to China, saying: “It is necessary to think about proceeding in a more constructive manner in the future.”

Meanwhile, Japan is welcoming North Korea’s willingness to finally resolve the abduction issue and to con-tinue bilateral talks. For the North, the Pyongyang Declaration [the joint Japan-North Korea agreement signed in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002] is a deed promising enormous amounts of economic support in exchange for the resolution of the nuclear, abduction, and missile problems.

But for Japan, the Pyongyang Declaration is just bait to draw North Korea to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is up for re-election for the post of chairman of his Liberal Democratic Party on Sept. 20, and he wants to advertise the fruits of his reign—including his Sept. 17, 2002, visit to North Korea [at which the Pyongyang Declaration was signed]. 

On the evening of Aug. 29, Koizumi noted: “The North Korean side also considers the Pyongyang Declaration a foundation. I suppose that is a good thing, because it recognizes that Japan’s faithful implementation of the declaration will lead to the normalization of ties between the two countries.” He also stated: “We are going to solve the pending issues on the basis of this declaration.” The North seems to share the views of the Japanese prime minister.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, has questioned whether the North really is prepared to release the families of the abducted Japanese nationals to Japan unconditionally, or if it is just playing the “abduction card” and urging the resumption of normalization to gain economic support. Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi was heard to utter: “I wonder just how I should understand all this.”

Although North Korea took a positive position on the abduction issue at last year’s normalization talks, saying: “We have the intention of cooperating on the problem that Japan is anxious about,” they have not yet permitted the abductees’ family members to come to Japan.

Some point out that “we cannot deny the possibility that North Korea is just testing the bond between Japan and the United States through the abduction issue,” and promise that they are going to deal with the situation by giving careful attention to the North’s real intentions.