Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s decision to visit Pyongyang last September in response to the daring overtures of his counterpart Kim Jong Il led to a process that quickly spun out of the control of both leaders. Although no one could have predicted the intensity of the Japanese public outpouring in response to North Korea’s release of five Japanese abductees, the real reason why the historic meeting did not contribute to reconciliation was that neither side sought reconciliation as their primary objective.
For Kim Jong Il, resolution of the abduction issue was a prerequisite for gaining economic assistance from Japan, a prize that justified the gamble of releasing the Japanese abductees. Possibly, the North Korean leader underestimated the degree of Japanese public sensitivity to the abductee issue; but the Japan-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] relationship would have been frozen in any event the following month, when North Korean officials revealed to a visiting U.S. delegation the existence of a second covert nuclear weapons program. The news that the North Koreans had violated their 1994 nuclear agreement with the United States received relatively less attention in the Japanese press — but constitutes the primary reason why neither Japan nor North Korea has been able to move forward in negotiations on abductee issues or other aspects of normalization foreshadowed in the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration.
By the same token, Koizumi could hardly have believed that his visit to Pyongyang marked an important step in Japan-DPRK reconciliation. Rather, he wanted to be seen as taking dramatic action in response to a perceived security threat to Japan, thus giving his public opinion ratings a needed boost. The potential for a breakthrough on the abductee issue justified his contact with a counterpart widely considered to be untrustworthy. Notably, Koizumi’s visit to North Korea took place with relatively little advance consultation with Washington, suggesting that on matters of regional security, Japan has begun to seek greater diplomatic independence from the United States.
Perhaps the only real surprise of last September’s historic encounter was Kim Jong Il’s decision to allow five of the Japanese abductees to return to their homeland, an uncharacteristically humanitarian gesture.
Scott Snyder is the director of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. He is the author of Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Asia Foundation.