No. 11 — March 17, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

Japan's frosty relations with North Korea could begin to thaw in the weeks ahead. That prospect is due largely to Tokyo's March 7 announcement that it will send food assistance to the famine-wracked country for the first time in three years. More importantly, the promise of 110,000 tons of rice, which will be distributed by the United Nations World Food Program, has set the stage for the resumption of negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic ties. These talks collapsed in 1992 when North Korean negotiators walked out in a huff over Tokyo's demands for information concerning Pyongyang's alleged kidnappings of at least 10 Japanese from northwest Honshu in the early 1970s.

In the six years that followed the breakdown, the two sides periodically explored the conditions for restarting normalization discussions. However, Tokyo abruptly suspended this initiative and froze food and other humanitarian assistance in response to North Korea's August 1998 launch of a Scud-based Taepodong-1 missile over Japan (see JEI Report No. 34B, September 4, 1998). Only after Pyongyang's September 1999 announcement that it would not test another ballistic missile while talks were underway with Washington designed to improve bilateral relations and stabilize the Northeast Asian security environment did Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suggest that Japan might be willing to lift its sanctions (see JEI Report No. 37B, October 1, 1999).

Concerning the kidnapping issue, Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said March 7 that while the Obuchi government had decided to resume food assistance "from a humanitarian viewpoint," the gesture was made "with the expectation that [the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il] will handle various problems between the two countries in a positive manner." Pyongyang is said to have abducted the Japanese nationals for the express purpose of using them to teach North Korean spies the Japanese language and customs.

Two years ago, the North Korean Red Cross Society reiterated the Kim regime's flat-out denial of the kidnapping allegations. During December 1999 talks between the two nations' Red Cross groups, however, the North Korean side seemed more willing to cooperate on this issue. The government's Central News Agency revealed that the North Korean Red Cross Society had sent a notice to its affiliated provincial, county and city branches directing them to open investigations into the "missing persons."

But an official report in early February stating that the matter was "settled" because none of the missing Japanese had been found once again raised questions in Tokyo about North Korea's trustworthiness as well as about its commitment to reconciliation. Not surprisingly, a number of lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party/ Liberal Party/New Komeito coalition government expressed strong reservations about reopening the food channel to Pyongyang. In keeping with the thinking of the United States and other Western nations as well as of South Korea that engagement rather than isolation is the most effective way to deal with the Kim regime, Mr. Obuchi basically overrode this opposition and green-lighted the rice shipments.

Japanese Red Cross representatives conveyed the details of the food aid plan to their North Korean counterparts during a March 13 meeting in Beijing. Marking yet another apparent shift in Pyongyang's attitude toward the kidnapping allegations, the North Korean Red Cross participants agreed to take "adequate steps" to locate the missing Japanese. The joint statement issued at the close of what were described as talks on humanitarian issues also said that visits to Japan by Japanese wives of North Koreans would resume in April or May after an interruption of about 20 months.

Full-fledged normalization discussions at the ambassadorial level will begin in April in Pyongyang. The second round will be held in Tokyo, with a follow-up session in Beijing or in another city in a third country. Mr. Aoki said that specific dates had not been set for any of the talks. Nor has Tokyo announced exactly when it will send the rice.

Reflecting the strong distrust that many Japanese still harbor toward North Korea, the Obuchi government's decision to resume food assistance prompted public demonstrations in Tokyo. Most Japanese still favor a quid-pro-quo strategy for dealing with their rogue neighbor. Accordingly, they believe that any offer of aid to North Korea should be linked to a positive response by Pyongyang on the kidnapping issue. Protesters contended that Japan's latest concession sent the wrong signal: North Korea now may think that it can get something for nothing.

Relatives of the children allegedly abducted by North Korean agents (presumably as they were walking home from school on deserted seaside roads) were especially angered by Tokyo's March 7 decision. "As parents of kidnapped people, we oppose food aid when it goes to the military and when it doesn't bring back our children," one father was quoted as saying. Pyongyang's iron grip on food distribution and other aspects of North Korean life as well as the stringent limits it places on foreign news organizations and outside humanitarian relief organizations make it difficult even for International Red Cross officials to determine if the truly needy are receiving the food donated by the United States and other countries or whether it is being used to feed North Korean soldiers.

Evidence suggesting that North Korea now may see the wisdom of developing ties with the rest of the world rather than sticking to its self-imposed isolation may have encouraged Mr. Obuchi to pursue a policy that departs from domestic sentiment but that is in keeping with the strategy of neighbors and allies. In February, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visited North Korea and signed a treaty of "friendship, good neighborliness and cooperation" between the two nations. Relations between Pyongyang and Moscow have been strained since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, which had served as North Korea's most important trading partner and economic patron.

This groundbreaking initiative was followed March 5 by a visit by the rarely seen Mr. Kim to the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Pyongyang. The South Korean press has reported that North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun will visit Beijing in late March to pursue this diplomatic opening.

Pyongyang also appears to be reaching out to Western capitals. In what some analysts regard as an aggressive effort to build new economic ties to replace North Korea's previously heavy reliance on the former Soviet Union, Pyongyang established diplomatic relations with Rome in January. The next month, North Korean and Australian working-level officials held talks in Pyongyang on normalizing relations between their countries. Finally, in the near future, a high-level North Korean official will visit Washington — the first such diplomatic foray since the North Korean state was created in 1948.

While North Korea's apparent desire to become a more active participant in the global economy may bode well for Japan's relations with its troublesome neighbor, few policymakers are waxing optimistic. During the past 50-plus years, successive Stalinist regimes in Pyongyang repeatedly have proved themselves to be unpredictable and unreliable. The current powers-that-be just as quickly could slam the door on the Japanese, the Americans and everyone else. Perhaps for that reason, the Japanese foreign policy professionals handling the preparations for the upcoming normalization meetings seem to be taking things one step at a time.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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