After the breakdown of the United States-North Korea summit in Hanoi in late February, some in Japan observed that a breakthrough might come on the issue of the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens. North Korea is known to approach Japan when its relations with the United States are tense.
I don’t expect any such development. Given that the abduction issue was incorporated into Washington-Pyongyang negotiations on the North’s dismantlement of nuclear missiles, I suspect that Pyongyang would not negotiate with Tokyo until there is progress in its negotiations with Washington. When that happens, Japan’s economic assistance will serve as “carrots” to encourage the North to accept a compromise.
It is just after such progress that a Japan-North Korea summit may come. I suppose that it could come within 2019.
Linked to Progress in Denuclearization Talks
U.S. President Donald Trump referred to the abduction issue both at his one-on-one meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and at a subsequent dinner meeting in Hanoi. This led some people to criticize the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for depending on the U.S. to resolve the abduction issue. However, that criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the facts.
At a meeting with family members of the abductees and their supporters after the Hanoi summit, Prime Minister Abe said, “President Trump directly conveyed my idea about the resolution of the abduction issue [to Chairman Kim].”
Mr. Abe further clarified the idea in his policy address to the Parliament on January 28, when he said: “Towards the resolutions of the nuclear and missile issues and, most importantly, the abduction issue, we will take bold actions without missing any single opportunity, by breaking the shell of mutual distrust, and with myself meeting face-to-face with Chairman Kim Jong Un. We will seek to settle the unfortunate past and normalize relations with North Korea.”
At the meeting with Chairman Kim, President Trump reportedly spread out a map of North Korea and, building on his property development experiences, explained how hotel construction could develop a specific coastal zone into a resort. Then, President Trump told Mr. Kim that Prime Minister Abe was planning to provide economic assistance on the condition that the abduction issue would be resolved. On the other hand, he explained, the U.S. Congress was unlikely to approve funding on its own.
Japan Should Utilize Information on Surviving Abductees
Before the Hanoi summit, North Koreans were led to expect that the summit would be successful, bringing about the relaxation of international economic sanctions, the resumption of China-North Korea trade, and financial assistance from Japan and South Korea. Although the summit breakdown has reportedly disappointed North Koreans, this episode indicates that economic sanctions have forced the Pyongyang leadership to recognize the possible flow of Japan money to calm down domestic discontent.
When the North Korean party organ Rodong Sinmun reported the Hanoi summit breakdown for the first time on March 8, it criticized Prime Minister Abe for angering Pyongyang while tapping on a North Korean door. But it also demanded the settlement of Japan’s colonial past by noting that Japan should not dream of keeping company with North Korea without paying compensations for its past crime.
The Pyongyang leadership is undoubtedly planning to win money from Japan after successful negotiations with Washington. It seems that no final decision has been made on whether to return all Japanese abductees — or some of them — while falsely claiming the remainder as dead. Pyongyang is checking Japan-held information on surviving abductees in North Korea.
Families of Japanese abductees and their supporters have sent Chairman Kim a message that if all abductees are immediately returned, they will not seek secrets from these abductees or raise opposition to the normalization of bilateral relations.
Author: Tsutomu Nishioka