This week, in the wake of increasingly shrill North Korean threats, Vice President Mike Pence is in East Asia, rallying the US-South Korea-Japan alliance around the Trump Doctrine of peace through strength.
Vice President Pence told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the United States was prepared to use force to bring lasting peace to the region. It appears that an armed conflict with the tottering North Korean dictatorship is virtually inevitable. The world braces for the worst.
But there is still a way out. War can be avoided, and Prime Minister Abe holds the key. Abe can offer to broker a peace deal between Washington and Pyongyang in exchange for the return of the hundreds of Japanese, such as Megumi Yokota, and other citizens kidnapped by North Korea. By doing this, he can save his country and his allies from the horrors of nuclear war, and can also bring to an end the long nightmare of the North’s decades of hostage diplomacy. (Check out Japan Forward’s special coverage of the issue here.)
Beginning in the mid 1970s, North Korean agents, working under direct orders from Secretary Kim Jong-il, began abducting innocent civilians from throughout Asia and, eventually, the rest of the world. Japan was the principal target of this massive state-level campaign of kidnapping and terrorism.
For some 20 years, the list of missing persons grew and grew, while suspicions of something much more sinister than random disappearances gradually gained ground among the families of the disappeared.
It was not until 1991 that the Japanese government finally began to move on the possible North Korean connection, contacting the North Korean side in an attempt to resolve the problem. In 2002, in a surprise volte-face, Kim Jong-il, in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, admitted to the abductions and apologized. Just a few months later, five abductees were on a plane headed back to Japan after decades of captivity in Pyongyang.
This startling turn of events marked the beginning of a new channel of North Korean “diplomacy,” which is really just an extension of the state’s sole momentum: stalling for time. Because of the limitations of geography and natural resource distribution, as well as the crippling effects of personality-cult paleo-Stalinism, the North is never strong enough to defend itself, and must constantly play great powers off one another in order to avoid being eaten alive by geopolitical giants.
The abduction issue proved to be a tremendous windfall for North Korea. Because Kim Jong-il shrewdly admitted to the abductions while returning only five abductees, he ensured that his own hand would remain flush with trump cards in perpetuity.
When calls grew particularly forceful for the return of Yokota Megumi, kidnapped from Niigata when she was just an elementary school girl, Kim sent a box of bones to her family which he claimed were her remains. DNA testing subsequently proved they were animal bones, but this, too, worked to Kim’s advantage. It was unclear whether Yokota was alive or dead, so Kim could have it both ways, dangling her return before Japanese negotiating teams like a carrot, while also backing away and declaring the case closed when the pressure to return her grew too intense.
“Abductee diplomacy” was thus one of the mainstays of North Korean international relations, and proved an effective time-stalling substitute to the nuclear program driven underground by the Clinton-era deals and the War on Terror.
All of this changed with the death of Kim Jong-il and the ascendency of his son, Kim Jong-un. The differences between father and son are stark. Kim Jong-il was as crafty as he was ruthless, and his sly machinations actually allowed for at least the semblance of negotiation with foreign diplomats. Kim Jong-il’s game was international survival, and he was smart enough to know the stakes. He was never truly interested in launching nuclear attacks; his tactic and his strategy was to drag out talks in order to prolong his regime’s international life for yet another day.
Kim Jong-un, by contrast, is no strategist. He is a reckless boy suddenly put in charge of perhaps the most ideologically twisted military force currently in operation. He does not understand that North Korean diplomacy can only ever have one goal—misdirection for the sake of survival. He reacts, he does not plan. This makes Kim fils especially dangerous.
Unlike Kim Jong-il, whose position inside North Korea was relatively secure, Kim Jong-un rides a dragon of questionable loyalty. Sanctions have hit the North Korean elite hard, and Kim Jong-un, who can no longer deliver the luxury goods that kept the elite placated, is now also failing to deliver the basic imports and cash subsidies from China that kept the starving populace just barely above subsistence level—alive, but too malnourished and weak to rebel.
Kim Jong-un is therefore not really playing for an international audience, but a domestic one. And he has hung his entire performance on one act: nuclear provocation.
It is for this reason that North Korea under Kim Jong-un in May of 2014 backed out of negotiations with Japan to return the abductees. He unilaterally withdrew from meetings—a classic display of North Korean stalling tactics—ostensibly about the committee that North Korea claimed to have formed to “investigate” the whereabouts of the abductees.
For Kim Jong-un, the abductee issue had lost all of its meaning. Kim did not need the distraction of playing for time because, unlike his father, he was forced to prioritize cowing potential enemies at home into immediate submission. Negotiating over the abductees would only have exposed him to restrictions on the one program that he had calculated to be essential to his personal survival.
This desperate ploy might have worked for Kim Jong-un. But what he did not foresee—what no one foresaw in 2014—was the presidency of Donald Trump. Barack Obama’s appeasement was pure oxygen to Kim Jong-un’s personality-cult conflagration. Kim could make wild threats with no danger of reprisal. But Trump’s election took all the air out of the room. Kim’s provocations now have actual consequences, and his days as dictator appear to be numbered. No one knows this better than Kim himself.
The question is, how will Kim’s house of horrors come down—piece by piece, or in a fiery blast? The answer to that question directly affects the safety of hundreds of millions of people living on the Korean peninsula, in Japan, in the United States, and throughout the range of Kim’s missiles. For the first time since Khruschev, it is plausible that someone with an arsenal of nuclear missiles will use them. Indeed, Kim Jong-un has painted himself into so tight a rhetorical corner that he now virtually has to launch attacks against at least the United States. The ensuing carnage is too horrific to contemplate.
But there may be a surprising solution to the crisis hidden right in plain sight: the abductee issue. Although Kim Jong-un abandoned the issue as a diplomatic track three years ago, the fact remains that North Korea, by Kim Jong-il’s own admission, ran an abduction program and continues to detain abductees.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is therefore in a unique position to help avoid an apocalyptic scenario on the Korean peninsula by offering to broker a peace deal in exchange for the immediate return of all abductees, not only to Japan, but to every country from which North Korea has kidnapped citizens over the past four decades and longer.
If Kim Jong-un is interested in survival, either of his regime or of his person, he will want to listen carefully to Prime Minister Abe’s offer to bring him and Donald Trump to the negotiating table. This would be a diplomatic coup for Abe, and a chance for Trump to repay Abe’s early support of his administration. Abe, and not Xi Jinping, will have been responsible for solving the most intractable diplomatic problem of the 21st century. It would also allow Trump to claim, in the event of future military action, that he truly had exhausted all diplomatic options before using force against the North.
True, a meeting with the American president would bolster Kim in the short term. But recovering the abductees will also deprive Kim of the one diplomatic angle he has so far been too foolish to pursue. It will also highlight to the Chinese that the Japan-US mission against North Korea is at heart a humanitarian one, thereby reducing the military alert level in Beijing.
Abe should be careful to extend his offer to the North Korean government as a whole, and not just to Kim. This will signal that Abe would be willing to deal with a North Korean team even in the event that Kim Jong-un were to suffer an unfortunate early demise. In this scenario, all of the abductions could be blamed on the Kim dynasty, and North Korea, perhaps, could begin the long program of De-Stalinization which eventually brought about the end of the Soviet Union’s reign of communist terror.
There can be no down payments in this deal. All of the abductees—every single one—must be physically on the ground in their home countries, and their identities verified, before Abe should mediate between Washington and Pyongyang. In return, Kim Jong-un’s regime will live on for another day. If Kim Jong-un chooses not to accept the offer, then the only hope is that intelligent, sober members of the North Korean elite will see reason and act accordingly.
During the Korean War, North Korea kidnapped tens of thousands of South Koreans, most of whom were never heard from again. During the 1950s and 1960s, North Korea ran a de facto abduction program using large vessels to ferry Koreans from Japan to North Korea. There are presently some 60,000 Japanese nationals living in South Korea. If the abductee issue is not resolved now, and in tandem with the nuclear stalemate, then the Japanese government may very likely be faced with an abductee crisis dwarfing the current one by several orders of magnitude.
Jason Morgan is an assistant professor at Reitaku University.