Following the Trump-Abe summit in Mar-a-Lago this past April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe secured President Trump’s commitment to the abduction issue. The New York Times described it as “one small victory,” while The Washington Post even defined it as “a rare but important win for Abe.”
Abe’s rhetoric on the thorny issue of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s is direct and categorical.
Speaking on Fuji TV, the prime minister announced that the solution he envisions is the “immediate return of all abductees to Japan.” The following day, the DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency responded that Japan is “clumsy and foolish” to bring up the issue, which it considers already resolved.
In this never-ending impasse, Japan’s chance to make progress on the abduction issue is to take a different approach. Is the immediate return of all abductees to Japan a realistic goal for Abe’s government?
The abduction issue became politicized in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when two major support organizations emerged and the media began to report on the abductees’ families. Those families have made good efforts to raise public awareness of the issue and even sensitize U.S. administrations on the abductees’ ongoing suffering.
In September 2002, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi became the first Japanese prime minister to visit North Korea and meet Kim Jong-Il.
Some considered Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang an effort to recover his plummeting popularity, a step Abe might be trying to follow. However, in this case, Abe’s decisiveness is also symptomatic of a bigger fear.
While emphasizing the importance of cooperation with China and South Korea on North Korea’s denuclearization plan, and contemplating a Japan-North Korea summit, in the past weeks Abe’s government has been nervous about the risk of being sidelined by its closest ally, the United States.
A MOFA official pointed out that the prime minister “is worried about being seen as ‘left out of the mosquito net’ (‘kaya no soto’),” adding that the Cabinet has given the order not to use the expression.
Another government official noted that, “Since North Korea’s denuclearization is the prime interest for the United States and South Korea, there’s no way for U.S. President Donald Trump to place emphasis on the issue of the abductees during the U.S-North Korea summit.”
One way the Japanese government could break this deadlock is to consistently include the Japanese case in the broader issue of postwar regional abductees, and link it to the human rights violations made by North Korea.
South Korea has also seen its citizens kidnapped by the DPRK, which is an opportunity for Japan to actively promote dialogue between Japanese and South Korean families and activists, and enhance its credibility on a regional and international level.
Therefore, the first step Japan could realistically achieve is to negotiate directly with North Korea a reopening of the joint investigations on all regional abduction cases, emphasizing the shared burden with the other American ally in the region.
This will constitute a more original position, and a more achievable goal for Japan. It will also enhance cooperation between Japan and South Korea, putting greater pressure on North Korea to reopen talks.
Lastly, it will engender continued U.S. support and align the three countries in the negotiation process, thus ensuring Japan remains inside the mosquito net.
(Sayuri Romei is Associate Fellow for Security and Foreign Affairs of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.)