Last Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marked 10 years in power. Recent observers have focused on nuclear weapons and diplomacy with South Korea and the United States, but there are under-discussed considerations related to Japan-North Korea ties.
On the surface, it may seem that not much has changed. Compare 2011 to 2021 — North Korea still presents a security threat to Japan, there has been no progress on the abduction issue, and there have been zero summit-level meetings with Kim Jong Un. So, that means status quo, right?
Not at all. We have seen a widening of the gap between Japan and North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power and a hardening of policy stances on both sides.
In fact, relations are worse now than before 2011. There are prospects for change, but those will hinge upon North Korea’s post-pandemic approach to diplomacy and Japan’s agility in its engagement strategy.
When thinking of Japan-North Korea matters, three things are key:
First, North Korea has been a part of Japan’s defense calculus stretching back to 1950. The North Korean invasion of the South contributed to the decision to form the “National Police Reserve” in Japan (the precursor to the Ground Self-Defense Force) and for Japan to play a role in the Korean War. Naturally, this calculus has evolved over time with influence from North Korea’s support to terrorist activity (e.g. the United Red Army militant organization active in Japan in the 1970s), its spy ships operating in Japanese waters and its rising nuclear and missile capabilities.
Second is the abduction issue, which features prominently in Japan’s political consciousness. The Japanese government has formally identified 17 victims of kidnappings by North Korean agents in the 1970s (but they speculate the actual number could be in the hundreds), and the Japanese government has sought to secure their return. A series of summits and lower-level meetings in the early 2000s led to the North Korean admission that it abducted 13 of the 17, five of whom returned to Japan in 2004. This continues to be a priority issue for the Liberal Democratic Party-led government.
Finally, there is the presence of zainichi Koreans with ties to North Korea. This is most evident in the form of the Chosen Soren, known as Chongryon in Korean and the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan in English. The Chosen Soren maintains formal ties with the North Korean government, serves as a parent organization for Japanese citizens and permanent residents of Korean descent and manages several independent schools throughout Japan. Importantly, Kim Jong Un’s mother was born a zainichi Korean in Osaka, living and working in Japan until she emigrated to North Korea in the 1960s as part of a government-organized repatriation effort.
Complicating the relationship between the Japanese government and the Chosen Soren is long-standing and mutual distrust. The Japanese government has a troubled past with its treatment of zainichi Koreans, and the Chosen Soren has a history of financing the Kim regime, supporting intelligence gathering activities and facilitating North Korea’s illicit behavior. These ties are troubled and complex, and they introduce an important dynamic in the broader Japan-North Korea relationship.
With those things in mind, how were the state of relations before Kim Jong Un’s ascension to power?
Japan had engaged fairly routinely diplomatically with the North Korean government between 2002 and 2008. It started in earnest with the first summit between then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then-Chairman Kim Jong Il. The two countries participated in the six-party talks along with the United States, South Korea, China and Russia, with lower level officials meeting to discuss the abduction issue intermittently. Although the six-party talks failed and talks on abductions achieved only modest progress, they still presented a chance for diplomatic solutions that otherwise did not exist.
This changed after Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in 2008. With the North Korean leader’s health deteriorating, the Kim regime’s focus shifted inward towards establishing a successor. They bypassed Kim Jong Il’s oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, who had demonstrated himself to be a liability — not least of which when he tried and failed to enter Japan in 2001 on a fake Chinese passport so he could go to Tokyo Disneyland. They also passed over the middle son, Kim Jong Chul, who lacked the disposition for the sort of politics needed to preside over the authoritarian regime. And so Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, became the anointed successor.
During Kim Jong Un’s early years in power, it seemed like the Japanese government would be able to pick up where it left off before Kim Jong Il’s stroke. The two governments had a series of discussions between 2012 and 2014 in Mongolia, China, Sweden and North Korea, and the Kim regime agreed to establish a special investigation committee for the abduction issue.
After that last meeting in 2014, however, the Kim regime abruptly halted those talks. In February 2016, North Korea issued a unilateral announcement that it would be dissolving its special investigation committee and that it considered the abduction issue to be resolved. The two governments have not held another formal meeting in over seven years now.
The disruption to diplomacy with Japan came as North Korea accelerated its nuclear and missile testing. The regime under Kim Jong Un conducted four nuclear tests and continually broke records for the number of missile tests per year between 2014 to 2017. Many residents of Japan can vividly recall the J-Alert alarms that would sound on their mobile devices when some of those missiles were launched.
Naturally, since North Korean capabilities factor into Japan’s defense calculus, the Japanese government had to respond. This included Japan’s contributions to the “maximum pressure” campaign, which began in 2016 but accelerated with the advent of the Donald Trump administration in early 2017. Citing the existential threat that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile technology presented, the Japanese government supported sanctions monitoring and enforcement and pursued the acquisition of capabilities meant to counter the North Korean threat.
When the “Fire and Fury” period transitioned to one of diplomatic rapprochement and engagement, the Japanese government was left largely on the sidelines, forced to inject its interests into diplomatic efforts with North Korea through the White House. To that end, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was successful in ensuring that the U.S. government mentioned the abduction issue in its dealings with the Kim regime, though raising the matter did little to stir the North Koreans to action.
Prospects for direct Japan-North Korea engagement grew dimmer over time. After the U.S.-North Korea summit failed to produce a deal in February 2019, there was still a slim hope for back-channel dealing between Tokyo and Pyongyang in a so-called cash-for-abductee information deal. But that changed in January 2020. That month, North Korea sealed its borders to protect the country from COVID-19, and for nearly two years, there have been few signs of opening up for substantive diplomacy between government officials.
The pandemic has not helped matters. Not only has North Korea locked down its borders and focused on domestic issues, Japan has been a consistent target of criticism in North Korean state media. Over the past two years, there has been a steady drumbeat of anti-Japanese sentiment in reporting from North Korea state media outlets like the Korean Central News Agency and Rodong Sinmun. The reporting has decried Japan’s colonial and wartime acts, denounced Japan’s plans to increase military spending and discussions on strike capabilities, and criticized the government’s territorial claims.
Amidst the diplomatic stalemate, time has worked against Japan. The relatives of those abducted are aging and passing away without closure, most recently with the loss of Shigeru Yokota and Shigeo Iizuka, both of whom led groups dedicated to resolving the long-standing issue.
What does this all mean? It means that Japan has little, if any, diplomatic leverage left with North Korea. Conventional diplomacy is going to have little chance of success because the Japanese government cannot afford to ignore the threat of North Korean nuclear and missile advancement, and North Korea cannot allow Japan’s defense buildup to go without protest. That will continue to throw up barriers for resolving things like the abduction issue.
Japan will need to employ back-channels and try to separate issues like abductees from broader security problems. To that end, the Chosen Soren may be Japan’s only key to unlocking a path to the Kim regime.
The one exception to the Kim Jong Un regime’s near-universal denouncement of anything related to Japan is its continued support for the Chosen Soren. North Korean state media has criticized the Japanese government for its treatment of zainichi Koreans while recently lauding the 75th anniversary of Korean schools in Japan. Despite its own worsening economic conditions, the regime donated $2 million to the Chosen Soren in April this year, continuing a trend of financial support that started when Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.
Employing this channel will require reconciliation between the Japanese government and the Chosen Soren. That may be a bridge too far, but it may be the only bridge available as formal diplomatic channels remain closed off due to the pandemic and the strategic-level security issues standing between the two countries.
Absent progress in back-channel dealings, we should expect a continuation of what we have seen during Kim Jong Un’s first decade in power: a prolonged diplomatic stalemate; a North Korea that remains dedicated to developing its nuclear and missile capabilities; a Japan that seeks to upgrade its policies and equipment to counter North Korean weaponry; and an abduction issue that inches ever-closer to oblivion.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.