Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Cabinet Minister in Charge of the Abductees Issue Could Come Back to Haunt Shinzo Abe

The LDP presidential race, aka tryout for quarterback understudy, has been somewhat singularly lacking in drama. Thus, the media pounced on Shinzo Abe’s indication on TV that he would consider nominating a cabinet member to deal with the abductees issue. (See this Asahi report, this from Nikkei, if you are a subscriber, and this from Yomiuri, if you can read Japanese. Kyoko Nakayama, a relatively obscure government official who rose to national prominence as the mother figure for the abductees and their families is being touted as the leading candidate for the cabinet post.

I can see why Mr. Abe would want to do this, and, in the near-term, there is little downside to the idea. But, though it may be difficult to back off now and take the political hit, the decision could very likely come back to haunt him and even damage him domestically. Here’s why.

First of all, let me stress that I believe that this is not a political ploy by Mr. Abe to earn some political capital with his core supporters and the public in general.

Yes, the Japanese public has been genuinely frustrated at the subversive activities of North Korea and its unwillingness or inability to cooperate to bring satisfactory closure to the fate of the abductees. And yes, this is the single most important issue that has led Mr. Abe to the prime minister’s chair. However, if the rewards were disproportionately large, he did his best to earn them. He championed the cause long before it became popular. Thus, he is clearly at odds with many members of the elite who wish in private that the issues would take a backseat to what they see as more pressing national concerns, beginning with North Korea’s nuclear program, and would be very reluctant to agree with much of the rest that, again, privately seek at a minimum better balance among our foreign and security policy priorities. In fact, he sees this government failure to protect its citizen in the face of an assault on Japanese sovereignty as a fundamental blow to the nation state that must be made good to preserve the social contract. Thus, this is in line with his past actions and deep-rooted convictions.

Having said that, the cabinet post raises expectations that Mr. Abe will be hard put to meet. North Korea has likely given about as much as they can, short of actually compromising their security apparatus altogether. Indeed, even some members of the supporting organization have voiced the opinion that only regime change could definitively resolve the issue [requests help in locating the newspaper, likely Yomiuri, report where I read this]. If this is true, then they have a long wait coming, since North Korea’s main benefactors, China and South Korea, have little interest in regime change, at least for the foreseeable future. Thus, frustration will surely mount. It does not seem to be a good idea to give a policy priority with such a low chance of success such a high profile on your A-Team.

Somewhat more likely than regime change in the foreseeable future, if only slightly more so, would be some kind of meaningful progress that helps resolve the current impasse on the WMD question. (The reverse is more likely in the long-run; after all, Kim Jong-Il "needs" the nuclear weapons and missile programs, while a truly new regime would not.) But that would pose a particularly difficult question for someone whose popular support rests on a hard-line vis-à-vis North Korea, which specifically turns on the abductees issue. Does Mr. Abe have enough political capital to do a turnaround, even when so much of that political capital owes its very existence to the singular issue?

Laboring to keep the abductees issue on the negotiating table has been difficult enough for the Japanese government. Most recently, the UN resolution authorizing sanctions on North Korea gave at best tacit recognition to the abductees issue. In the event of a breakthrough on WMDs and missiles, or even progress that merits a substantial response for this side of the standoff, Mr. Abe would then have to make the unpalatable choice between abandoning the coalition to be fatally marginalized in global geopolitics (unacceptable) and abandoning the abductees’ families and their supporters to their despair (unforgivable). At that point, the cabinet minister will morph from a focal point of discontent to that of anger, and will likely choose to resign, thus magnifying the crisis over Mr. Abe’s leadership credentials.






見通しが利く来の範囲内で、わずかとはいえまだしもより可能性があるのが、大量破壊兵器問題に関する現在のこう着状態を打開するのに手助けとなるような事態が生じることです。(長期的には、むしろ逆の可能性の方が高くなります。というのも、金正日は核兵器・ミサイルプログラムを「必要」としていますが、真に新しい政権は、それを必要としなくなるからです。) しかし、それは、北朝鮮に対する強硬姿勢、とりわけ拉致被害者問題に関するそれに国民の支持が懸かっている安倍氏にとって、とりわけ難しい問題となるでしょう。彼の政治資本の甚だ多くがこの特異な課題に起因にしているところへ持ってきてこれに費やせるだけの政治資本を彼が持ち合わせているでしょうか。


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