Japan’s moves to improve ties with North Korea are triggering concerns that they would hamper the ongoing multilateral efforts to prevent Pyongyang’s provocative behavior and denuclearize the communist state.
On Thursday, both Tokyo and Pyongyang announced their agreement to set up a special panel to investigate the abduction of Japanese nationals and lift Tokyo’s independent sanctions against Pyongyang when the probe opens.
The agreement came as Seoul, Washington and even Beijing joined forces to pressure the reclusive state to renounce its nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang has threatened to conduct a fourth nuclear test, which would further sophisticate its military nuclear capability.
Seoul expressed a cautious stance over the deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo, saying it would continue to watch the developments of the agreement. Tokyo notified Seoul of the agreement through a diplomatic channel shortly before the official announcement.
“From a humanitarian standpoint, our government understands Tokyo’s position about the Japanese nationals abducted (by North Korea),” said Seoul’s Foreign Ministry in a press release.
“But regarding the denuclearization issue, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan share the view that the international cooperation (against a nuclearizing North Korea) should continue. In this regard, we will carefully watch the developments.”
|Song Il-ho, North Korea`s ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan, speaks upon his arrival at a Beijing airport on Friday. (Yonhap)|
Under its anti-Pyongyang sanctions, Japan has prohibited people-to-people exchanges and financial transactions between the two countries, and barred North Korean vessels from calling at Japanese ports.
Observers say the lifting of these sanctions could weaken the international pressure on Pyongyang.
Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University, said that in the short term, improvement in relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang would adversely impact the international cooperation against Pyongyang’s nuclear adventurism. But he stressed the negative impact would only be limited from a longer-term perspective, should Pyongyang stick to its nuclear program.
“Japan should also think about its relations with the U.S. as well. Thus, it cannot maneuver wholly independently. For the relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang to get a greater boost, there should be an agreement on such things as the freeze on the North’s nuclear program,” he said.
Analysts said that both Pyongyang and Tokyo had strategic interests in the improved bilateral ties.
For a cash-strapped Pyongyang, normalization of relations with Tokyo will be an opportunity to shore up its economy and make good on its much-trumpeted promises to enhance the livelihood of ordinary people.
Pyongyang is looking forward to getting financial compensation for Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule through a normalization deal. In a 1965 normalization deal, Seoul also received monetary reparations that were used for national development at the time.
“As Pyongyang seeks to develop special economic zones and improve the overall economic conditions, it needs much foreign aid, and it should also address its international isolation. For these reasons, the North felt the need to take advantage of Japan,” said Cho Bong-hyun, a senior researcher at the Industrial Bank of Korea.
Through improved ties with Pyongyang, Tokyo also seeks to ease the regional diplomatic isolation, experts pointed out. Japan has been estranged from South Korea and China amid their escalating territorial and historical feuds.
“As Japan’s political relations with China and South Korea are deteriorating, Japan is seeking to improve relations with the North, and this would send some messages to Seoul and Beijing,” said Cho.
“Japan also seeks economic cooperation with the North. It could give compensation to the North in the form of infrastructure development, rather than cash, and then, Japan could get a competitive edge (over other nations) regarding economic development in the North.”
Some experts said that Tokyo’s push to improve ties with Pyongyang has much to do with domestic politics. They argued that the issue of kidnapped Japanese was one of the most crucial issues affecting public opinion.
“Considering the public sentiment, the issue of the abductees outweighs North Korea’s nuclear issues. It is an issue that goes beyond the foreign policy issue, given that it directly influences people’s lives,” said Lee Jung-hwan, assistant professor at the School of International and Area Studies of Kookmin University.
Lee added that the resolution of the abduction issue, along with a constitutional revision to allow Japan to have a full-fledged military, is what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regards as his “historical mission.”
“As Abe has sought to revitalize the Japanese economy and alter the interpretation of the war-renouncing constitution, he now wants to address the abduction issue in order to fulfil his historical mission,” said Lee.
“From the early 2000s, Abe has built his popularity not on his focus on the economy but on his emphasis on history and abduction issues.”
Some observers expressed concerns that with Japan likely to forge a substantial leverage over the North, the South could end up having little influence over its northern neighbor. They stressed that Seoul should exert more creativity and flexibility in its policy toward the North.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)