Thursday, February 12, 2009

Some Implications of South Korea’s Help on Japan’s Abduction Issue

I’ll have to issue a corrective regarding my previous post on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit regarding a possible meeting with family members of abductees. I’d overlooked the change in South Korea’s policy regarding its own abductees under the Lee Myung-bak administration and more broadly the impact of an overall shift away from the ten-year-old Sunshine policy. This point was driven home for me when South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan announced that he was helping to arrange a meeting between Kim Hyun Hui, one of the North Korean agents responsible for the 1987 Korean Air Flight 858 bombing and now living in South Korea in relative seclusion, and family members of Japanese abductee Taeko Yaguchi, who had been tasked with teaching Kim the Japanese language and Japanese customs.

I can’t imagine the Lee administration following Japan’s lead in asking Clinton for a face-to-face with South Korea’s own abduction constituency—it makes South Korea look weak and reliant on the United States, always bad politics over there, and it’s not going to help right things anyway—but the South Korean gesture has raised the media’s attention. I believe that this slightly raises the stakes for both Clinton and North Korea with regard to her response to the Japanese request. Moreover, it’s one thing for the United States to indulge Japan as an act of diplomatic courtesy; it’s another for the three parties to act in consonance, if not in unison. The North Korean response will be that much harsher. The Kim Jong Il regime is playing its latest Taepodon caper for much larger stakes in its bid for face and more fungible goodies, but it may nevertheless see such a gesture as an indication of a harder line from the Obama administration than the late-Bush administration’s sliced-salami concession tactics.

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