Yesterday, the Chief Cabinet Secretary made the announcement, later confirmed by the Foreign Minister, that the North Korean authorities has agreed to reopen investigations regarding abductees and repatriate the remaining four of the nine Japanese radicals who highjacked a plane to North Korea in 1970 and received asylum there and two Japanese wives of theirs, who, together with the highjackers, are accused of playing key roles in the abductions. In return, the Japanese government will be lifting all sanctions on movement of personnel, and will also allow North Korean ships to enter Japanese ports to load humanitarian aid cargo. However, all sanctions on trade—including a total ban on imports from North Korea—as well as the less significant financial sanctions will remain.
To repeat: There is no reasonable scenario short of regime change in North Korea that will close the case. It is highly likely that the remaining eight of the thirteen abductees that the North Korean authorities have confessed to are dead, and just as unlikely that North Korea will be forthcoming even if any of them are alive.* There is also little chance that the North Korean authorities will fess up to the other four abductees that the Japanese government has recognized but the North Korean authorities have denied. On the other hand, it is near impossible for the North Korean authorities to prove that they are telling the truth.
Thus, I do not see the reinvestigation producing anything conclusive in any way. It is no wonder that the families of the remaining abductees show no optimism with regard to the latest turn of events. That lack of enthusiasm is likely to boil over into open displeasure as the process peters out with little to show for it. In terms of domestic politics, there is little to gain for the Fukuda administration, though the negatives down the road will be tempered by waning public interest with the passage of time since the 2002 revelations.
Then why do it? Actually, the Fukuda administration had little choice. The Bush administration is poised to cut a deal with the North Korean authorities that will freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for among other things dropping it from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. The bus will be leaving, with or without Japan on board, so Mr. Fukuda had to take what he could get. Besides, the main target of the sanctions are programs relating to weapons of mass destruction; it was only in 2006 October, after Shinzo Abe succeeded Junichiro Koizumi as Prime Minister, that the Japanese government added the abductees issue to the justifications.
Some people here will trace this change in tack to the very beginning of the Fukuda administration, when Mr. Fukuda indicated that he would be taking a more conciliatory approach to the issue. Indeed, the Fukuda administration indicated through the Chief Cabinet Secretary and the Foreign Minister that it would ease sanctions commensurate with progress on the abductees issue. It is also true that Mr. Fukuda represents a less hawkish worldview than Mr. Abe, his predecessor as Prime Minister. Moreover, Mr. Fukuda has far less political capital invested in the issue than Mr. Abe, who basically rode that one-trick pony as an obscure sub-cabinet Deputy to Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda to the Prime Minister’s office in just four years’ time.
Thus, the more nationalistic/hawkish elements of the media will blast Mr. Fukuda for making the deal—Sankei has already come out strongly against easing the sanctions. But there was no viable alternative. There is no way that an LDP Prime Minister, whatever his personal inclinations may be, could hope to stand in the way of a nuclear programs deal that the U.S. government is determined to push through without losing face, or worse, just possibly throw the whole process off track by giving a somewhat implausible Congressional coalition of human rights advocates and national security hawks ammunition to cut down the main track agreement on North Korea’s nuclear program. The abductees issue has existed only between the lines in the agreement under the Six-Party Talks. There is no way that the Bush administration, or any U.S. administration for that matter, would allow it to take a front seat to the main issue.**
So the fix is in. Barring deal-breaking snags in the negotiations between the Bush administration and the North Korean authorities—and the devil is truly in the details when it comes to dealing with North Korea—the Fukuda administration will have to live with the political consequences of an unsatisfactory but unavoidable deal.
* It is notable that three of the nine highjack perpetrators reportedly died in North Korea of natural (illness and accident) when they were 35, 42, and 52 years of age respectively. This unusually high mortality rate mirrors that of the deceased abductees. The North Korean authorities claim that eight out of the thirteen that they have admitted to—five were repatriated alive, while the Japanese government recognizes four more missing people as abductees, bringing the total of officially confirmed victims to seventeen—also died of illness and accidents (and natural disasters), all in their twenties, thirties or forties.
** Note that John McCain, who is seen as deeply sympathetic to the plight of the abductees and their families, always makes a clear distinction between the nuclear weapons program and the abductees issue, which he always places in the category of “future talks”. See, for example, the following excerpt from his Foreign Affairs essay.
It is unclear today whether North Korea is truly committed to verifiable denuclearization and a full accounting of all its nuclear materials and facilities, two steps that are necessary before any lasting diplomatic agreement can be reached. Future talks must take into account North Korea's ballistic missile programs, its abduction of Japanese citizens, and its support for terrorism and proliferation.