Tuesday, May 27, 2014

North Korea’s Bloody Succession Offers Cover for Possible Deal on Abductees

The sometimes on-again, most times off-again talks between the Japanese and North Korean authorities are now taking place in Stockholm, and the unspoken rhetorical question again is: Will anything come of it?

If my memory serves me correctly, the deal was that the North Korea would conduct a search to see if it could come up with new information regarding the missing abductees, and Japan would ease a little bit of its sanctions. The deal appeared to fall through, the Six-Party Talks themselves went south, but the Abe administration has been trying hard to revive the Six-Party Talks side deal, North Korea for whatever reason (money? leverage against South Korea and the United States? Leverage against China? All or none of the above?) is willing to talk, and here we are.

Few people believe that the North Korean authorities have been truthful. In fact, the only thing truthful that they could be telling about the still-missing abductees is that they are dead, in which case any new information that the North Korean authorities could produce is highly likely to be worse than the dubious explanations that they have given to date. That is not all. How could they credibly explain why new, no doubt dramatically different facts have turned up after all these years? And how would they assign blame for the oversight?

The problems are compounded for the North Koreans if some of all of the abductees are alive, since there must be a good reason for keeping their presence secret all those years ago. Given the purpose of the abductions, possession of highly sensitive information concerning North Korea’s national security operations is by far the most plausible explanation, and that situation is unlikely to have changed much.

Until now. For it is my view that there is an opportunity on this occasion for the North Korean authorities to come clean, or at least come forth with a more credible story, including, if available, some actual survivors. Specifically, blame it all on Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, and other officials, named or unnamed, who were executed after Kim Jong Un inherited the dynasty. The system is opaque enough that the North Korean authorities can make its story stick as long as they can make sure that any survivors that they produce will toe the line—not so difficult to do if they now have family in North Korea.

It will still be an embarrassment for the North Korean authorities. I am worried that any asking price that they set will be too high for the Abe administration, or that they will not even be able to set one. Moreover, there is the matter of Japanese public opinion. Remember, it was the highly negative public reaction to the initial revelation that essentially forced Prime Minister Koizumi to switch to a hardline position after he returned with his entourage from his first trip to North Korea. Can the Abe administration give assurances that things will be any different this time around, if the North Korean authorities are unable to produce all, or most, of the still-missing abductees alive?

Still, there does seem to be genuine interest on the North Korean side in the process, and Prime Minister Abe’s personal commitment appears to be genuine. And North Korea’s bloody succession process can provide some coverage, assuming something actually something tangible is brought to the table. This time, I am staying tuned.

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