Kim's Big Gambit, Abe’s Big Gamble


So far, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has played the game masterfully. He has succeeded in engaging Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in a strategic dalliance, primarily for the benefit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. What we are seeing, in short, is a diplomatic version of the time-honored ploy of stirring a lover’s ardor by showering false attentions on his rival. Whether China will take the bait has yet to be seen, but at this point Pyongyang can congratulate itself on having drawn Tokyo into the game under terms that promise to benefit North Korea alone. 

Tokyo’s Blind Bet

On May 29, the Japanese government announced that Tokyo and Pyongyang had reached an agreement aimed at resolving the abduction issue that has cast a long shadow over Japan’s ties with North Korea. Under the terms of the agreement, Pyongyang has promised to launch a comprehensive, full-scale investigation into the fate of the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s and other Japanese believed to have gone missing in North Korea. In addition to confirmed and suspected abductees, the probe is to gather information about the graves and remains of Japanese who died in what is now North Korea around the end of World War II, Japanese stranded in Korea after the war, and Japanese citizens who migrated there with their Korean spouses after the war.

Japan, in turn, has promised to lift or relax certain sanctions as soon as it has confirmed that North Korea has opened its investigation under a special commission established for that purpose. The sanctions referenced in the agreement are special measures that Tokyo imposed on North Korea unilaterally, including restrictions on travel and fund remittances and a ban on the entry of North Korea-flagged ships with humanitarian missions into Japanese ports.

The problem lies in Tokyo’s commitment to relax these sanctions once the investigation is reopened instead of waiting to see the outcome. At this point, the probe has not even begun. How can we know whether it will be carried out in a manner acceptable to Japan? What if the results fall short and fail to bring closure or satisfy those who have kept up the pressure for a full accounting? The unilateral sanctions now in effect are Japan’s only real bargaining chip for forcing such an accounting. How can Tokyo hope to negotiate a more meaningful resolution once it has given up that leverage?

Opening the Japanese Money Spigot

Pyongyang certainly has reasons for seeking a relaxation of these special sanctions. In its state of chronic economic crisis, North Korea is desperate for inflows of cash from overseas. Restrictions on fund transfers imposed by Japan in response to North Korea’s recent nuclear tests and missile launches have stemmed the flow from an important source—Koreans living in Japan.

This was always the key objective for Pyongyang’s negotiators—not, as many in Japan seemed to think, the pending sale of a building that has served as Tokyo headquarters for the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. The North Koreans had already figured out from earlier developments that the Japanese government (the administrative branch) was unable to interfere with a decision passed down by the courts (the judiciary). They raised the sale issue this time around merely as a smoke screen, with no actual expectations for a concession. The North Koreans were focused first and foremost on reopening the money spigots that Tokyo had closed by restricting fund transfers, and in this respect they have every reason to be happy with the outcome of the negotiations.

The Japanese side had powerful motivations of its own. Prime Minister Abe had launched his own personal crusade to address the abduction issue years ago, as a rank-and-file Diet member, and his current administration has made a full accounting one of its key foreign-policy goals. But with progress on the issue at a standstill since the release of five abductees in 2002, the fate of most of the victims remains unknown. Given the advanced age of the abductees’ parents, Abe doubtless felt intense pressure to get some results before it was too late.

A Steppingstone to Xi Jinping

Pyongyang also has compelling motives for engaging in dialogue with Tokyo, but unfortunately, those motives have little to do with Japan-North Korea relations. To be sure, Pyongyang misses the flow of funds from North Koreans in Japan, but its real lifeline is the aid it receives from China. Without this support, North Korea would be lost, regardless of the state of relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo.

But ties between North Korea and China have been frosty since December 2013, when Kim Jong-un abruptly ordered the execution of former National Defense Commission Vice-Chairman Jang Sung-taek, valued by Beijing for his work as a liaison and intermediary between the two governments. Rebuilding this damaged relationship is currently Kim Jong-un’s top strategic priority. Everything else must be seen as subordinate to that goal.

Kim Jong-un’s posture toward Japan in the coming months will depend entirely on the attitude of Xi Jinping, the real object of his maneuverings. Having recaptured the attentions of one’s sweetheart, there is little to lose by offending the stand-in.

I frankly see no cause for optimism regarding the vaunted “comprehensive, full-scale investigation” Pyongyang has promised. Most likely the North Koreans will play games with Japan, offering up such empty tokens of cooperation as some unidentifiable remains or the repatriation of some Japanese citizen who entered North Korea of his own free will. With the sanctions already removed, Japan will have no leverage to apply and will have no choice but to rely on the good faith of the North Korean government. And the Japanese people know as well as anyone how much that is worth.

(Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō talks to reporters about his government’s recent agreement with North Korea at a May 29 briefing at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence. © Jiji Press.)

abduction North Korea,China Abe Shinzō,Kim Jong-un