Where do North Korea-Japan relations stand today?

Posted on : 2015-01-23 14:21 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
 professor emeritus of Keio University in Japan
professor emeritus of Keio University in Japan

After two hours of discussion among experts on East Asian affairs from South Korea, Japan, and Germany, the answer was inconclusive: we can only wait and see.

The future of relations between North Korea and Japan depends on the findings of a report that North Korea is overdue in releasing about Japanese nationals in North Korea, particularly those who were abducted during the Cold War.

On Jan. 21 at the East Asia Foundation in Seoul, Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus of Keio University in Japan and one of the leading scholars on Japan-North Korea relations, gave a lecture and answered questions on the current state of affairs between the Pyongyang and Tokyo.

There was not an empty seat in the small conference room of the East Asia Foundation, an organization founded by Hyundai Motor Group CEO and chairman Chung Mong-koo, to “advance peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.” Prof. Okonogi spoke for 45 minutes to a wide mix of listeners, among them diplomats, scholars, and journalists, before opening the floor to questions. Yonsei University Professor Moon Chung-in moderated and provided periodic summaries in English.

Okonogi listed two events that are fundamental in understanding why Japan-North Korea relations are at their current stalemate. Both have origins in the Cold War.

First, nukes. North Korea’s military agenda and nuclear program is the first hurdle that must be overcome if Japan and North Korea are to normalize relations.

Second, and most relevant to the current state of impasse, is the issue of Japanese nationals in North Korea. These Japanese include those left behind after WW2, those kidnapped during the Cold War, spouses of North Koreans, and the remains of those who have since died in North Korea.

The abductee issue came to the forefront of Japanese politics in the early 2000’s when Japan’s prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, began pursuing normalization. However, when Koizumi inquired about the whereabouts of 17 kidnapped Japanese, North Korea answered that five survived, eight were dead, and four were unaccounted for. This answer, and the questions it inspired, caused uproar throughout Japan and halted any chance of normalizing relations.

The same issue is what is causing the current diplomatic standstill.

At a meeting in Stockholm last May, North Korea agreed to begin a special investigation of Japanese citizens within North Korea, and in return Japan would begin lifting sanctions against the North. The first report was due by August, but as of yet North Korea has released no findings.

Prof. Okonogi posited that there is reason for both Pyongyang and Tokyo to be nervous due to the possible repercussions that the report could have. For North Korea, there is the likelihood that Japan will not be happy with the contents and stop dialogue altogether. The Japanese government worries that the Japanese public might divide after the report is released. Both sides suffer equally from a lack of trust. That, Okonogi says, is the biggest hurdle to overcome.

“DPRK-Japan negotiations are very difficult negotiations, because they are negotiating from a position of mutual distrust,” he said.

During the Q&A experts concluded that if Seoul and Washington don’t reciprocate Pyongyang’s attempts to improve ties, the North Korean leader will continue to follow his father’s agenda of military buildup and brinksmanship. They also said that Seoul would benefit from a more positive approach to North Korea.


By Dan Sizer, Hankyoreh English intern


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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