Kishida Should Not Gamble on the Sincerity of North Korea

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addresses a meeting on the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals on Nov. 26, 2023. Third from left is Takuya Yokota, whose sister Megumi Yokota was among those abducted.

Since the start of the year, we have seen a North Korean charm offensive aimed at Japan, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has underscored his strong will to seek a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Will these moves bear fruit? Of course, nothing is impossible. But the reality is that it is pretty difficult for the government of Japan to make a major deal with North Korea because of both domestic and international situations.

Kishida should revisit lessons learned from the history of Japan’s negotiations with North Korea — and not gamble on the North’s sincerity.

On New Year’s Day, a major earthquake hit Japan’s Noto Peninsula, killing hundreds. Only five days after the earthquake, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida received a message of sympathy from Kim Jong Un, through the Korean Central News Agency.

In the message, Kim expressed his deep sympathy and condolences to Kishida, bereaved families and victims. He also showed his hope that “the people in the affected areas would eradicate the aftermath of earthquakes and restore their stable life at the earliest date possible.”

It was very rare for a North Korean leader to send such a kind message to a Japanese prime minister. In fact, after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, North Korean officials other than Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il — the leaders at those times — sent sympathy letters to Japan. It was also very rare for Kim Jong Un to use the highly honorific title of “Your Excellency” when referring to the Japanese prime minister.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi replied to the message at a press conference on the same day, saying that he would like to express his thanks. On Feb. 5, Kishida said at a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting that “an unerring response will be needed” for the message.

The prime minister also expressed his strong will to advance high-level talks between his aides and their North Korean counterparts. When he was asked about the high-level talks at the committee on Feb. 9, he replied, “I badly feel the need to boldly change the prevailing situation between Japan and North Korea.” He added, “To do so, it is very important that I act independently so that I could establish relations with the president of the state affairs of North Korea,” referring to Kim.

Less than one week after Kishida’s statement, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un and vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, issued an interesting press statement. She commented, “There would be no reason not to appreciate his recent speech as a positive one, if it was prompted by his real intention to boldly free himself from the past fetters and promote DPRK-Japan relations.” Moreover, she referred to a potential visit by Kishida to Pyongyang, stating, “If Japan drops its bad habit of unreasonably pulling up the DPRK over its legitimate right to self-defence and does not lay such a stumbling block as the already settled abduction issue in the future way for mending the bilateral relations, there will be no reason for the two countries not to become close and the day of the prime minister’s Pyongyang visit might come.”

This statement may give Japanese people a certain impression that North Korea is positive on having a summit with Kishida. In fact, it has been well received among the families of abductees. Takuya Yokota, whose sister Megumi Yokota was abducted by North Korea, told reporters on March 4, “This message is a concrete move we have never seen before, and we feel this is a sign of change in which something stagnant has started to move.”

The Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN) and the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN) decided in late February that they would allow the government of Japan to send humanitarian relief to North Korea and lift Japan’s independently decided sanctions if the abductees were to return to Japan all together. That’s a major change as they had previously asked the Japanese government not to lift sanctions. In short, they gave up their pressure campaign, then turned to supporting dialogue.

Even though both governments likely want to improve relations by direct talks, a fruitful result cannot be expected. One need only look at the history of Japan-North Korea relations.

In 2002, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea and met with Kim Jong Il — an event I covered on the scene. Kim Jong Il acknowledged that persons affiliated with North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens in the past and offered his apologies. He informed Japan that out of the abducted Japanese citizens, five were alive and eight were dead.

Both leaders signed a Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration. This declaration was a grand bargain stipulating that if North Korea would make an effort to resolve the abduction issue and extend a moratorium on nuclear and missile development, Japan in turn would provide economic co-operation and work toward normalizing relations.

However, this declaration wasn’t implemented. There were two reasons.

First, the explanation given by North Korea that eight people had died was worse than the Japanese public had expected before the summit. It was absolutely unacceptable not only for the families of abductees but also ordinary Japanese people. The Japanese government couldn’t provide economic assistance to North Korea until the abduction issue was completely resolved.

Second, soon after the summit, the United States disclosed to Japan and other countries that North Korea hadn’t kept its word to honor the Pyongyang Declaration, but had secretly continued its nuclear and missile development programs. This disclosure made it very difficult for Japan to proceed with normalization talks with North Korea or give it economic assistance.

In short, both the emotional climate surrounding North Korea in Japan and the international situation at that time didn’t allow the Japanese government to unilaterally improve bilateral relations and realize a grand bargain with North Korea.

When one analyzes the current situation, the parallels are striking.

Regarding the abduction issue, the Japanese people are still very skeptical. They believe that even if talks are held with North Korea, it would be impossible to expect satisfactory results. There is a rumor that North Korea may offer to return a few abductees, other than the eight whom it claims died. This would be the same offer that it made to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014 after an agreed reinvestigation of all the abductee cases, but Abe refused to accept it. If North Korea asks Kishida to accept the same offer, I don’t think he could take it, as it would likely be unpopular and thus do nothing to help his low approval rating.

Regarding the international situation, Kim Jong Un, sometimes called “Rocket Man,” has frequently fired missiles, including ones classed as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The North has also continued its nuclear weapons development. Those activities pose serious security concerns not only for Japan but also South Korea and the United States.

Under these circumstances, Japan and North Korea will not be able to attain a major deal. I am sure that North Korea is well aware of that reality.

Then what are North Korea’s goals in its charm offensive toward Japan? If Japan unilaterally proceeds with talks with North Korea, both South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden will be criticized by their domestic political opponents for being unable to negotiate with North Korea themselves. Former President Donald Trump could claim that Biden’s foreign policy is “a disaster.”

Kishida has to cautiously revisit these complex situations and should not take advantage of the matter for the sake of his own political ambition. If he does, it may cause a political and diplomatic disaster in Japan, South Korea and the United States, undermining the trilateral relationship.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Satoshi Ogawa

Satoshi Ogawa is the editor of the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.