Prime Minister Abe’s surprise May 29 afternoon announcement that North Korea had agreed to comprehensive survey on the abductees and specified missing persons suspected of being abducted came as a major surprise in its own right. No one, including me, had expected things to move so quickly, if at all. The surprise was compounded because
same-day media reports had the talks in Stockholm ending inconclusively, to the great disappointment of the families of the abductees.
Did a breakthrough occur between the perfunctory, apparently inconclusive report to Abe from the chief negotiator in the evening on the 28th enabling the former to make that announcement? If so, the two parties moved with remarkable alacrity, with the two sides making simultaneous announcements in Tokyo and Pyongyang, the Abe administration orchestrating a carefully scripted two-part announcement, with a detailed announcement and extensive Q&A featuring Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga after the prime minister’s initial media splash. Or had the agreement actually been in place by the time that the negotiators left Stockholm but the media had been misled, leading to the initial negative reports? The latter explanation appears much more likely to me.
There’s a plausible explanation for the disconnect. There were the other two key cabinet ministers to be consulted, procedures to be followed, the families of the abductees to be notified, before the conclusions based on the phone calls and email and the negotiator’s report could be distilled into specific announcements.
That said, the public (the families, too) was misled, if only for a matter of hours, when “no comment” would have sufficed. More important to the Abe administration, the reporters covering the abductees issue, who had followed the negotiating team to Stockholm had been misled, to the benefit of the cling-on interview was conducted for the benefit of the reporters on the prime minister beat. Nothing will come of this if all goes well, but the Abe administration has narrowed its margin of error if and when things go wrong, as far as the reporters more focused on the abductees issue are concerned.
A note on the pragmatism and irony evident in the cling-on interview format that Abe administration chose for the initial announcement. The pragmatism? A cling-on interview is in theory an impromptu that can be suspended or cut off at the convenience of the interviewee, a feature that Abe’s minders surely appreciate. The irony? Many of you will remember that the first Abe administration had tried to drop the twice-a-day event that Prime Minister Koizumi had used to great effect altogether, eventually settling for a once-a-day format.