Japan-North Korea Rapprochement: A State of Maturity

Tokyo residents walk bast a TV screen showing Koizumi shaking Kim Jong-Il's hand
Tokyo residents walk past a television screen showing Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi shaking North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Il's hand in an unprecedented summit, Sept.17, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Japan agreed to resume negotiations with North Korea on normalization of relations by making Pyongyang admit to most of Japan’s claims concerning the abduction [of Japanese aid workers in the 1970s and ’80s] and the [North Korean] spy ship that, after an exchange of gunfire, was sunk in the East China Sea last December.

Diplomatically, this must have been a triumph. But when you scan the Japanese press, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been depicted as a traitor. From now on, the contest will be between diplomacy and public opinion.

Kim Jong Il, who functions as both emperor and North Korea’s prime minister, has admitted to the abductions and the spy ship; this must have been a truly hard stance for him to take, since by doing so, North Korea has admitted having once been a terrorist country. This has major international significance, for it could cause other countries to deny North Korea’s continued existence as a state. In addition, North Korea agreed to give up its claims for compensation for Japan’s aggression on the Korean Peninsula before and during World War II, and it agreed to be compensated through financial cooperation in the same manner as South Korea was.

The story of North Korea’s establishment is ultimately the story of the partisan movement led by Kim Il Sung, who liberated North Korea and put an end to Japan’s colonization, which lasted from 1910. This is why North Korea persisted in its claim for compensation from Japan. For North Korea to give up that claim now is to logically deny the founding ideology of the nation.

The Japanese do not understand what lies behind North Korea’s new position on this issue. I think that Japanese diplomats received [a hint of North Korea’s changed attitude] beforehand. They assessed that the time had come to act.

This is the reason why Koizumi made up his mind to go to Pyongyang.

Since 1990, politicians, mainly from Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, have carried out the negotiations between the two nations. Japan has wanted to word a treaty with North Korea as similarly as possible to the treaty that was signed with South Korea, but the perfect timing never arose—until now.

But since the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, North Korea’s manner of diplomacy has stopped being acceptable to the United States. Since 1994, North Korea has been thinking that if it came closer diplomatically to the United States, it would get Japan as part of the bargain. Now it is clear that North Korea cannot approach the United States, and thus its policy toward Japan and South Korea changed. Japan took advantage of this weak point, and it could now draw maximum concessions from it.

South Korea cannot fathom that North Korea has admitted to the abductions, and both Russia and China are stunned. Although this is a triumph for Japanese diplomats, public opinion in Japan is divided. Today, the Japanese do not hope for normalization with North Korea, as they did regarding China 30 years ago. Although the abduction issue and spy-ship incident seem to be solved, there is still a fundamental contempt in Japan toward North Korea.

The conservatives support Koizumi’s diplomatic negotiation, while the populists criticize him. This may have been the first opportunity for Japan to lead its own diplomacy independently of the United States. If you think back to the negotiations between South Korea and Japan, which lasted more than 10 years, both countries were very reluctant and wary of each other but were brought together by the United States, which wanted to isolate China. This time, however, Japan has acted alone, and America finds itself in the back seat. It seems now that we are witnessing the beginning of the decline of the United States’ position in East Asia. South Korea welcomes Japan’s diplomacy and the fact that Japan acted on its own this time around, which could have an effect on the presidential elections in South Korea this December.

Even if the candidate from the current opposition party were chosen to be the president, the “Sunshine Policy” [the South Korean drive to improve ties with North Korea, which led to a historic meeting between the two Korean leaders in June 2000—WPR] that has been carried out by [South Korean President] Kim Dae-jung cannot be altered dramatically. In a way, Prime Minister Koizumi boosted the Sunshine Policy.

China welcomes this agreement for the time being, but the Chinese may be very ambivalent. If Japan should later prove to have a large influence on both South and North Korea, China fears its own significance might weaken. Russia also has welcomed the negotiations between Japan and North Korea.

In the statement drafted by Japan and North Korea, the issues of deployment and import of missiles and conventional weapons was not mentioned. North Korea will demand high rewards if the United States asks it to reduce or freeze its conventional weapons arsenal. Taking into consideration the deployment of U.S. soldiers in South Korea, North Korea cannot simply accept the reduction of its weapons arsenal.

There still remain two main problems: First, if the situation in Northeast Asia stabilizes, the United States will prepare to attack Iraq without worry. In this case, the American government, including the military, will focus on Middle Eastern issues and ignore Asia. The U.S. media covered Iraq’s acceptance of United Nations inspections in greater detail than they did the Japan-North Korea talks, although they occurred on the same day.

Another problem is the lingering doubt that Japan and North Korea can really reconcile. There is a large gap between financial cooperation and a sincere apology regarding Japan’s colonization. Once you apologize for past wrongs, it is your responsibility to compensate for them in a proper manner. For Japanese diplomats, it is meaningful to protect the line of “financial cooperation,” as was done with South Korea, and for North Korea there are impending concerns that might make them acquiesce. Even the victims of abduction are victims of the inhumanity of the “nation-state.”

If Japan and North Korea had achieved normalization long ago, these abductions would never have taken place. Primarily, we should have argued about how the nation and its people should confront the past, namely the colonial rule of Korea. If you consider the past as over and done with, that will surely lead to individual claims for national compensation. Actually, there is such a movement in South Korea now. For the time being, unless the compensation matter can be resolved, there is no hope for any new era in Japan-North Korea relations.

If diplomats had listened to Japanese public opinion, they would have demanded something that could not have been met by North Korea in the talks scheduled to resume in October: the release of information on how the abductions were carried out and how the victims lost their lives. Forcing such demands onto North Korea would have immediately caused this rapprochement to reach a dead end.

Finally, the current public mood in Japan is similar to the one that prevailed in South Korea in the 1960s. At that time, the South Korean public discourse painted North Korea as “a preposterous and inexcusable country,” where 3 million people died and 10 million were separated during the Korean War. Now, Japan sees itself as the victim because of the abductions; in making use of this sentiment, Japanese nationals will have to admit that several million North Koreans still suffer because of the Korean War—which was a product of Japan’s colonial rule.

Consider that a victimized country such as South Korea could implement the Sunshine Policy. This policy is not a give-and-take situation. It means a policy of give, give, and give in order to open up North Korea. That Sunshine Policy moved Koizumi. If Kim Dae-jung had not visited Pyongyang two years ago in June, Koizumi wouldn’t have decided to hold the current talks with North Korea. If South Korea can change, so can we.

We have to learn from the history of South Korea’s dealings with the North, as we can learn a lot from their experience. South Korea has overcome its hatred toward North Korea, so why does Japan have such a hard time doing so? The reason is that Japan has stayed away from difficult historical issues ever since World War II.

Japan’s location isolated it from both the Korean and Vietnam wars, and following our ideology of “one nation peace policy,” we have not exposed ourself to Asian history.

Now, public opinion is excessively reactive because Asian history has caught up with us. The maturity of the Japanese people stands to be tested. If we are confused by populist opinion against North Korea, we will never succeed.

The author is a professor at the University of Tokyo.