Thursday, August 06, 2009

Let’s Hope No One Draws Parallels between the Abductees and the Two American Journalists…

Joe’s comment here gives me good chance to unleash yet again a couple of my pet peeves—regarding the abductees and Prime Minister Koizumi. No, those canards do not come up in Joe’s comment, but it’s clear that they lurk behind the media reports that go into forming the background of his take.

There are good reasons why nothing has been achieved with regard to the following Japanese demands:

1) Give a full and credible accounting of the fate of the remaining abductees;
2) Return remaining survivors; and
3) Punish the people responsible for the operation.

The North Korean authorities claim that they have already accounted for the remainder—they deny some of the Japanese claims—and that there are no more survivors. They also claim that the people responsible for the operation were punished. There is a gap here. No, there is nothing short of regime change that can bring the North Koreans to satisfy Japanese demands. I think that this is hard not to see. But then, why does MOFA persist in making these demands?

One line of persistent popular among Western liberals is that this is the result of a successful rightwing campaign, who use this issue for some inchoate but undoubtedly nefarious purposes. Not so. This, as I have never tired of explaining, is a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding based on a few undeniable facts regarding Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. To wit, Koizumi:

1) paid his respects at Yasukuni Shrine (to fulfill a campaign promise);
2) dispatched troop to Iraq (after the war was over); and
2) was succeeded by Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister.

In fact, the Japanese demands are supported in public by most politicians across the entire political spectrum from the nationalist-nativists to JCP spokesmen as well as just about every editorial writer in the mainstream media from Sankei to Asahi. The key phrase here is “in public.” For it is the Japanese public that was the driving force behind these demands; Koizumi would have lost his job if he had stayed the course after his first trip to Pyongyang, and Abe was the grateful recipient, not the instigator, of the popular outcry over the North Korean revelations that helped propel him into the Prime Minister’s office. Public sentiment regarding the issue has very much cooled, but no one in any position of responsibility is willing yet to touch this political third rail. And that’s things stand today. If you doubt me, read the election manifestos.

If you want to know more about thoughts regarding Koizumi and how he fits into the big picture on this, you are free to search my blog or, better, pay me to write an essay on this subject. If you don’t have the time or money to do so, then you’ll just have to take my word for it.


Joe said...

Okamura-san, I agree with you that it is an important issue to the Japanese public, and that the families of the abductees have some unrealistic expectations, and I don't think the impasse is a right-wing plot either (I don't bother to read Western media, liberal or otherwise, when it comes to Japan, because most of it is filtered through Western stereotypes or American interests).

My point in my post was that a fair number of Japanese are wondering why the government can't get them back when the US can get theirs back after only half a year in captivity.

My personal opinion is that the other abductees are dead, so no matter what the Japanese government does, nothing good is going to happen. Of course, as you say, no one of any authority can say that out loud.

But even on the assumption that the abductees are still alive, the government's approach seems to show little, if any, tactical and strategic thinking. The 6-nation talks were meant to be about the nuclear issue, yet Japan forced the abductee problem into the mix, prioritizing that over the primary purpose of the talks. That allowed Pyongyang to diplomatically flip Japan the bird, and causing very visible cracks in the semi-united front of the US, South Korea, and Japan. All this played to North Korea's advantage.

Secondly, the pleading for help to the Americans by Japanese officials and the families of the abductees really weakened the Japanese diplomatic hand, especially when the US had no real stake in the issue.

Plus, there's been little to no coordination with the South Koreans, who have hundreds of their own abductees. While Pyongyang refuses to deal with the current SK government, during Roh's administration I saw little interest on the part of the Japanese in trying to work with the South Koreans. Maybe there were talks under the radar that didn't really come out in the media, but obviously nothing came of it publicly.

I really have no idea what Japan can do to get their people back, but I have yet to see anything since the 5 returnees that shows any mature diplomatic skill.

Joe said...

Oh, and I realize you weren't criticizing me; I just wanted to clarify my take

Jun Okumura said...


I’m sure that the good people at MOFA have thought about all that—and probably more, since they do it full-time. My point is that none of it matters, at least not yet. Foreign policy is merely the continuation of domestic politics by other means; the bureaucracy cannot overrule the expressed wishes of politicians, who in turn cannot stand up against public sentiment. My point is that Koizumi’s half-success (in the eyes of the Japanese public) created a popular narrative for “those left behind,” and the nation remains in its thrall.

This is something that I have found difficult to explain to the satisfaction of Westerners. But that’s just the way it is. Consider: Would a Republican Congressman from a Red State vote in favor of universal healthcare? A Senator from Montana for gun control? A Senator from New York in favor of the war in Iraq? I could go on and on.

This, of course, is not a criticism of the reasoning in your comment; it’s just a reminder that it doesn’t work that in this neck of the woods.

Joe said...

Fair enough. Any ideas on what might change things on the Japanese side?

Anonymous said...

Pay you? Good one. We'll take your word for it.

PaxAmericana said...


I would have changed your description to "the bureaucracy cannot overrule the expressed wishes of politicians, who in turn cannot stand up against their owners or, in some cases, popular opinion." Which is why a House Democrat from San Francisco has no problem with maintaining or even increasing the wars. And this is why the popularity of politicians in the US is becoming so low as to reach third-world standards. In other words, they don't vote for unpopular policies as such, they just orchestrate things to achieve the same result. As an example, I would argue that the situation for gun owners is much worse now than 25 years ago, even though the branches of government have been quite Republican during those years.

In the case of NK, we have to ask what powerful lobbies might want, not simply popular opinion, which is, admittedly, overwhelmingly negative towards NK. Actually, I would very much enjoy reading an article by you on what those powerful interests are. We can all see the construction tribe or the financial industry, but how powerful are, say, those who profit from buying and integrating military systems?

Jun Okumura said...


If I thought I knew, I would have shared them with you and every blessed one of you who read this blog. Kim Jong Il gave it his best shot—it was an act of political courage; even among villains, courage and cowardice have their places—and failed. The North Korean authorities will not, cannot, come forth. I sometimes wonder what might have been.

On the Japanese side? Time, perhaps. There are already signs that the collective memories are fading albeit slowly. But I think that the North Koreans have moved too far along the nuclear path to make any kind of concession large enough to force the Japanese side to shelve the abduction issue in the interests of regional security.


You do realize that the rest of the OECD thinks Americans are nuts when it comes to guns, don’t you? Actually, I’ve gained more sympathy for you folks in recent years. I’ve come to think that it is difficult to take away your guns without killing the drive and commitment that keeps the United States from maintaining its unique role in providing the bulk of public goods—and some bads.

Anyway, my point is that whatever business or political opportunities some people might have seen in making nice with North Korea, they vanished before the public outcry. I don’t think that Koizumi gets nearly enough credit for engineering the return of the families of the abductees after the issues had curdled. And speaking of Koizumi…


I’m glad that you agree that if all those people are getting paid to write without doing their homework, then it is only fair that I should get paid too. Now I have nothing against other people getting paid to entertain—I pay, willingly, all the time—but I do believe that they should give value for the money. More generally, I think that’s essentially what we bloggers are complaining about. I mean, wouldn’t you complain if Kobe kept getting dunked on against a pickup team from your local Y?

PaxAmericana said...


It's a fair point about Koizumi and the families. It never made any sense to push the NK issue, did it? Anyway, cynics like me expect the NK card to be played when theres's some money to be made or political angle to keep the rubes in line. This cynicism comes from being from DC. No matter how cynical you get, you can't keep up.

The topic of guns was simply to point out that politicians can avoid certain votes but follow powerful interests that want the opposite of the voters in any area, such as a Democrat from San Francisco essentially favoring the war economy. The popularity of these wars in SF is close to zero.

The OECD doesn't seem to care for several things about America, and the feeling is probably mutual.

Jun Okumura said...

PaxAmericana: My guess is that two things motivated Koizumi: one, a genuine sympathy for the abductees and their families (Koizumi is human); and two, an opportunity to engineer an epoch-making normalization of relations between the two nations. After that, it has been little more than damage control, including the return of the returned abductees and their children and one spouse fro money—which also happened to serve a humanitarian purpose.

There used to be speculation about people pushing normalization in order to profit from the trillion-and-upward Japanese money that would be flowing to North Korea as de facto reparations. That would certainly have been a legitimate argument thirty years ago, when the money would have most likely been tied to the purchase of Japanese goods and services. Not these days, though; North Korea would demand untied cash payments and the Japanese authorities would not have any choice but to comply.

By OECD countries, I meant rest of the developed countries, not the institution.