Why has US blocked way for normalization of N. Korea-Japan relations twice?

Posted on : 2021-07-25 10:20 KST Modified on : 2021-07-25 10:20 KST
Ever since the two pushes for normalization fell through in 1990–91 and 2002, North Korea-Japan relations have remained bogged down with no way out in sight
Then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shake hands during their meeting in Pyongyang in September 2020. (pool photo)
Then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shake hands during their meeting in Pyongyang in September 2020. (pool photo)

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met in Pyongyang in September 2002 for the first summit between Japan and North Korea. But shortly after they announced the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration, the second North Korean nuclear crisis erupted.

Is it a coincidence that a North Korean nuclear crisis occurred right when Pyongyang and Tokyo were attempting to mend ties not once but twice in the space of a decade?

After North Korea and Japan’s efforts to normalize relations failed twice, first in 1990-1991 and then again in 2002, their relationship has floundered along, unable to reach a breakthrough. That’s a situation over which the US isn’t losing any sleep.

On July 7, 1988, the Japanese government issued a statement expressing its willingness to negotiate with North Korea in regard to all pending issues between the two countries. That was immediately after South Korean President Roh Tae-woo said he was “willing to help North Korea improve relations with South Korean allies such as the US and Japan in order to form the conditions for establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

As soon as Roh publicly expressed his intention to coexist and cooperate with North Korea both domestically and internationally in a special declaration about Korea’s national self-respect, unification, and prosperity on July 7, in other words, Japan revealed its readiness to negotiate about normalizing relations with North Korea, as if it had been waiting for a signal.

It wasn’t until Oct. 30, 1988, three months after Roh’s special declaration on July 7, that the US government issued a new North Korea policy called the “modest initiative,” allowing North Korean and American diplomats to hold practical dialogue in neutral locations. That indicates just how quickly the Japanese government reacted to the declaration.

This was another example of Japan’s outstanding diplomatic instincts. Japan normalized diplomatic relations with China in September 1972 (seven years earlier than the US), regarding White House national security advisor Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in July 1971 as a harbinger of a major change in the Cold War order.

The Japanese government must have concluded that its statement hadn’t been enough because Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita said “deep remorse and regret” to North Korea for Japan’s colonial rule of the country in March 1989.

North Korea-Japan relations were chilly, if not tense and hostile, until the late 1980s. But various factors increased the necessity of a rapprochement, including the collapse of socialist governments across Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a rapid thaw between South Korea and Russia — with this final factor being the decisive catalyst.

South Korea’s normalization of relations with Russia had opened up a fissure in the Cold War alignment in Northeast Asia and tipped the balance of power in its favor. That made North Korea desperate to restore that balance by normalizing relations with Japan. For its part, Japan needed to “move north” to counter Russia’s “push south.”

Thus, North Korea and Japan had plenty of reasons to narrow the gap between them. They needed to create common ground rather than focusing on their differences.

Delegations from Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under former Deputy Prime Minister Shin Kanemaru and from the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) under former chairperson Makoto Tanabe headed to Pyongyang on Sept. 24, 1990, on the invitation of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Considering that these powerbrokers in Japan’s two biggest parties had brought a personal letter from the Japanese prime minister, it only stood to reason that their visit would have a positive result.

Two days later, on Sept. 26, Kanemaru and Tanabe sat down for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. The Japanese delivered the letter from Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu in the meeting and said they thought it was necessary to express contrition and pay compensation for Japan’s past actions, and Kim responded by proposing the beginning of negotiations for normalizing diplomatic relations.

The three parties (that is, the LDP, the JSP, and the WPK) released a joint statement about North Korea-Japan relations two days later, on Sept. 28. In this historic document, which consisted of eight sections, the parties “recognized that diplomatic relations must be established as soon as possible” (Section 2) and “agreed to strongly recommend that intergovernmental negotiations begin in November 1990” (Section 7).

Furthermore, the parties “recognized [that Japan] must officially apologize and provide adequate compensation to the DPRK [North Korea] because of the harm done to the North Korean people during the 45 years since World War II,” as well as during the 36 years of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea.

It was surprising enough that the two sides had agreed to initiate negotiations aimed at normalizing relations. But what’s even more remarkable — indeed, almost shocking — is that Japan recognized the need to pay compensation for the 45 years after the war. That indicates how determined Japan was to normalize relations with North Korea.

North Korea and Japan moved quickly to actualize the agreements they’d reached in their three-party joint statement. Following three preliminary meetings in Beijing, they held the first official round of governmental dialogue to normalize diplomatic relations in Pyongyang on Jan. 30-31, 1991.

The announcement of the three-party joint statement, which could have been regarded as a blueprint for the future of North Korea-Japan relations, came two days before South Korea and Russia announced their agreement to normalize relations at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 30, 1990. The joint statement was a strategic move by North Korea and Japan to counteract the impact of South Korea and Russia’s rapprochement.

The US blocked Japan’s overtures to North Korea

As the US sought to maintain its position as the world’s only hegemonic power in the post-Cold War era, it was not pleased to see Japan, its most important Asian ally, making overtures to North Korea. Indeed, the US efforts to thwart Japan became overt soon after the three-party statement was released.

A report by the Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, on Oct. 5, 1990, indicated the pressure that the US was placing on Japan “[to] convince the North to accept nuclear inspectors, to refuse to pay compensation for the 45 years since World War II, to receive a guarantee that the North would not use the compensation for 36 years of colonial rule to strengthen its military, and to ask the North to make an effort to keep inter-Korean dialogue from losing ground.”

As usual, Japan didn’t stand up to the US. When it joined the first round of talks in Pyongyang, Japan presented the US’ four demands to Pyongyang as “our basic guidelines for participating in the talks.”

North Korea didn’t object, contrary to its typical practice. Instead, it pushed hard to get results. When Japan asked the North to allow 20 Japanese women married to North Koreans to visit home and check on the welfare of 12 other women, the North only said it would “try to make that a reality within the scope of what’s possible.”

But as Japan caved to American pressure, its attitude toward the talks with North Korea gradually became more intransigent. In the third round of talks (May 20-22, 1991, in Beijing), Japan named three prerequisites for normalizing diplomatic relations: North Korea had to agree to nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency through a safeguard agreement; it had to agree to simultaneous admission to the UN with South Korea; and it had to make meaningful progress in dialogue with South Korea.

North Korea would have managed the UN admission and inter-Korean dialogue issues on its own — but the nuclear issue was a problem.

A report on pages 3 and 4 of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper dated May 21, 1991, observed that the “only way to cooperate on resolving this issue is to bring about negotiations between North Korea and the US.”

According to that report, the North “once again asked Japan to make a recommendation to the US government so that negotiations occur between the DPRK and the US,” but Japan refused.

To make matters worse, the third round of talks saw Tokyo pressing Pyongyang to investigate the “Ri Eun-hye issue.” This was based on the claims of Kim Hyon-hui, the culprit arrested for the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, who said a Japanese abductee named “Ri Eun-hye” had been responsible for teaching her Japanese.

The North called this a “scheme,” but at a fourth round of talks held from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, 1991, in Beijing, it reached an agreement with Japan to hold “informal contact at the vice foreign minister level outside of and separate from the main talks.” It was evidence of how intent the North was on normalizing relations.

In the end, however, the negotiations toward establishing diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo ran aground on the nuclear issue — and the “Ri Eun-hye” issue. The eighth and final round of talks took place in Beijing on Nov. 6, 1992, but failed to yield any results.

The Rodong Sinmun reported that the first two rounds of talks had taken place amid a “mood of reconciliation and friendliness” (the first) and a “friendly atmosphere” (the second). In contrast, it did not use the words “reconciliation” or “friendly” in its reports on the third through eighth rounds.

This meant the strategy adopted by then-US Secretary of State James Baker had succeeded.

In a confidential cable sent to then-US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney on Nov. 18, 1991, Baker wrote, “The new [Kiichi] Miyazawa government has moved Tokyo’s position [on the nuclear issue] close to our own: normalization and economic aid require not signing and implementing the IAEA full-scope safeguards agreement, but also foregoing [sic] a reprocessing capability. Some Japanese bureaucrats may seek to nibble away at this position, but we should hold them to it.”

Washington had used the nuclear issue — i.e., the first North Korean nuclear crisis — to block Japan’s overtures to the North.

Was it Thucydides or Karl Marx who first said that “history repeats itself”? The second North Korean nuclear crisis erupted shortly after the adoption of the DPRK-Japan Pyongyang Declaration following the two sides’ first-ever summit in the North Korean capital on Sept. 17, 2002, between then-Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The same pattern had repeated itself a decade later: overtures between Pyongyang and Japan falling afoul of another nuclear crisis. Coincidence?

“Baker brought up the nuclear issue during [Shin] Kanemaru’s visit [to North Korea in September 1990]. Later we learned that the US had been correct, but why didn’t they give us the information a bit earlier then? It feels like whenever we make a move, the US tries to stop us.”

Quoted on page 126 of the book “Kim Jong-il’s Last Gamble,” these remarks come from an interview with journalist Yoichi Funabashi given by Arata Fujii, who as director of the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Northeast Asia bureau had been involved in working-level preparations for Koizumi’s North Korea visit and the North Korea-Japan summit.

If we consider Japanese culture and how far people will go to avoid saying anything too pointedly, this account signals unusually strong feelings of displeasure.

Ever since the two pushes for normalization fell through in 1990–91 and 2002, North Korea-Japan relations have remained bogged down with no way out in sight. The US is unlikely to shed any tears over that.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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