One of the great what-ifs of contemporary East Asian history is this: What if the Japanese public had reacted differently to the Koizumi overtures to North Korea? More specifically, what if the Japanese public’s response had been measured enough that the prime minister could negotiate for normalization of bilateral relations? He put a lot of political capital on that bet and managed to salvage some political dignity when he extracted the families of the surviving (according to North Korean claims) abductees with a tiny fraction of the cash that would have been forthcoming in the process of normalization.
Trolls in a forum that will go unnamed will argue that right-wingers killed any chances of following up on the North Korean admission when it insisted on keeping the families of the abductees in Japan. They will put the blame on Shinzo Abe, who as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary argued against returning them to North Korea. I wonder if these are the same right wingers who, after more than a decade of steadily worsening relations with China and South Korea managed to raise 12.4% of the vote for their candidate of choice Toshio Tamogami in a Tokyo gubernatorial race with a historically low turnout. In any case, the Japanese public drove the media response, not the other way around, though the calloused brains of those trolls will never allow them to admit. It is also to be remembered that the Socialist Party (JSP) and Asahi Shimbun, who would normally have been expected to be sympathetic to North Korea, could not speak up on this matter because of their earlier dismissive attitude towards the existence of abductees (and the possible implication of the JSP in the liquidation in one of them). If nothing else, there was an extremely high price to be paid politically if Koizumi had decided to send them back.
The most significant effect of all this was that it hobbled Japan in the Six Party Talks, where it became more of a nuisance to the other four, who were trying to negotiate a deal on the nuclear weapons—not that in hindsight it had been a realistic goal in the first place. But when and where hasn’t domestic politics dictated diplomacy? Was it Yogi Berra who said that that diplomacy is domestic politics by other means?