Friday, August 15, 2008

New Deal on Abduction Issue: The Japanese Version and Other Things

This is the summer holiday season, when the regular Tuesday Cabinet sessions and the subsequent press briefings customarily held by attending Cabinet ministers are canceled*, so it may be just an accident that the August 12 bilateral deal on a new North Korean survey on the abduction issue that would lead to the lifting of some Japanese sanctions passed unacknowledged (as far as I am aware; I stand ready to be corrected) by the Prime Minister, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Foreign Minister, and the newly-minted Minister of State for (among other things) the Abduction Issue Kyoko Nakayama. Indeed the only official sign of recognition of the event to date has been a perfunctory document on the MOFA website entitled Outline of the Japan-North Korea Working-level Consultations held on August 11-12.

Still, this silence on the part of the political leadership is odd given the extraordinary revelations in the MOFA document. Let me translate for you the actions to be taken by the North Korean side:
(1) The survey to be conducted by North Korea shall be an across-the-board survey regarding abduction victims whose objective is to take substantive action directed towards the resolution of the abduction issue, in other words to find survivors and have them return to Japan.

(2) The subject of the survey includes victims recognized by the government and other missing people, etc. who have been put forward; in other words, all abduction victims shall be included.

(3) The survey shall be conducted with alacrity by a North Korean survey committee, and as far as possible shall be completed in autumn.

(4) The North Korean side shall inform the Japanese side as required and consult. If survivors are found in the process of the survey, the Japanese side shall be notified and the procedures after that shall be consulted with the Japanese side and agreed.

(5) The North Korean side shall cooperate so that the Japanese side can directly confirm the results of the survey through such means as face-to-face interviews of relevant people, joint possession of relevant documents, and visits to relevant sites.

(6) Consultations shall be continued on other matters related to the survey.**

In other words, the North Korean side is going to conduct a survey “to find survivors”, whose existence it has steadfastly refused to recognize “and have them return to Japan”. Moreover, the subject of the survey includes not only the ones that the North Korean side admits to have abducted but “all abduction victims” including “victims recognized by the [Japanese, one presumes] government and other missing people, etc.”, yet another seemingly extraordinary concession.

In exchange for this, the Japanese side:
Is prepared to implement the 1) lifting of restrictions on movement of personnel and 2) lifting of restrictions on charter flights [between Japan and North Korea] at the same time that the North Korean side begins said survey.***

The “agreement” left the return of the Yodogo airliner highjackers and permission of North Korean flagships to berth at Japanese ports to load humanitarian goods—agreed to in the June Working-Level Consultations****—to future consultations.

Given the eye-opening nature of the new North Korean survey and the immediate parallel lifting of some Japanese sanctions on this most high-profile of foreign policy (and national security) issues, it is odd at first sight that the matter is being downplayed to such an extent. But first sights can be deceiving, and this one is no exception. Let me explain.

First of all, there is no signed agreement, joint statement or anything else that records a common understanding that either side can refer to in the event of a disagreement. Indeed, since North Korea has not issued any sort of public record or statement of its own, we only have MOFA’s word that there really is an agreement, let alone its contents. North Korea may decide at any time to deny any part of MOFA’s version of the “agreement” when it suits their purposes, and will do so without hesitation if past behavior is any indication.

Second, the meeting was scheduled at the behest of the North Korean side, no doubt to have it begin on the date of the “initial window opening” for taking North Korea off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Growing domestic dissatisfaction and the exigencies of John McCain’s presidential campaign with regard to the substance of the deal and subsequent foot-dragging by North Korea led the Bush administration to let August 11 pass without action on delisting. North Korea does not look likely to be satisfactorily forthcoming on the plutonium cache, the uranium enrichment program or proliferation activities any time soon.

Third, North Korea has always played Japan and the United States (and South Korea for that matter) off against each other. When one relationship sours, North Korea attempts to coax out tactical gains from the other. Remember that Prime Minister Koizumi’s November 2002 visit to North Korea (and not Shinzo Abe’s hard-line position) elicited Kim Jong Il’s extraordinary admission and the return of five abductees (and ultimately their families) during the nadir of North Korea’s relationship with the Bush administration. Note also that North Korea’s relations with South Korea, already on the rocks after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak took office in February, has soured dramatically since its clumsy efforts to put the shooting of a South Korean tourist behind backfired.

Take these three points as a whole and North Korea’s intent and the motives thereof become clear. Seeing little prospect for improvements on the US and South Korean fronts in the near future, it decided to help the Japanese authorities release themselves from between a rock (Japanese public sentiment) and a hard place (the near-impossibility of substantive progress on the fate of the other abductees) by going easy on the August 11-12 Working-level Consultations and not disputing the Japanese MOFA version of the events that transpired. It is highly likely that the North Korean side will begin the survey and cash in on its immediate profits. As long as there are no substantial improvements on the US or South Korean fronts, it will try to extend the survey indefinitely—until such time as the situation improves sufficiently to allow it to end or (merely) suspend the survey, claiming completion or Japanese malfeasance.

Not only skeptics but also the families of the abductees well understand, if not the entire illusory background, the tenuous nature of the “agreement”, and are accordingly in no mood to embrace it wholeheartedly—all the more reason for political leaders to downplay the event and distance themselves from it*****.

* The regular Friday Cabinet sessions are held year-round.

** The Japanese originals of the six points are reproduced below. Incidentally, as official documents go, it is poorly drafted. That is what happens when an ambassador is obliged to work into the wee hours of the night, then produce a document for public consumption.

*** Original:
北朝鮮側が、今後、上記2.の調査を開始することと同時に、日本側も、1)人的往来の規制解除及び 2)航空チャーター便の規制解除を実施する用意がある旨表明した。なお、双方が措置をとる具体的タイミングについては、今後、日朝間で調整していくこととなった。

**** Here, the two parties are identified as “our side (我が方)” and “the other side (先方)”, thus accentuating the purely unilateral nature of the document. The August document reflects an awareness of this point, calling them the “Japanese side (日本側)” and “North Korean side (北朝鮮側)”.

***** It is telling that Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Socialist Party, is the only party leader anywhere to speak up—in favor in her case—of the understanding. Watch next week’s Japanese tabloids descend on her in a reminder of the Socialist blunder born of supreme indifference that reportedly led to the execution of one of the abductees.


Anonymous said...

I don't think for a minute that North Korea regards the Japanese government very much. Any dialogue or agreements between them is just a farce. Japan needs to clean house first and then be able to project itself as a regional player. The economy has to be revamped, corruption and organized crime should be curbed, and then an assertive and progressive nationalism should be fostered so that Japan could stand up on its own without being derided as a joke.

Jun Okumura said...

Anonymous: I agree that North Korea does not think much of the Japanese government. But that has nothing to do with the state of the Japanese economy. It does have something to do with failure to adequately contain organized crime, since a substantial portion of North Korea’s foreign currency earnings in recent years have come from smuggling drugs to Japan and selling counterfeit Japanese cigarettes. Shut down their source of revenue and they’ll squeal. But I’m not sure that’s what you’re talking about.

The main Japanese obstacle to a bigger international profile is the very timid approach to foreign and national security policies. In that respect, an “assertive and progressive nationalism” would by definition be an improvement, although there will be at least as many definitions of “assertive and progressive” as there are political parties and schools of thought. But I don’t see how something that could be defined as such will change things with regard to North Korea. China and South Korea have been bankrolling North Korea since the end of the global Cold War and nothing that even the United States could do has stopped them from doing so. Japan could have a hundred nuclear warheads and have ten thousand troops in Iraq and all that would have little impact on North Korea’s behavior unless we actually threaten it with them.