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The Japan-South Korea Relationship and the Korean Peninsula@@@i2008.2.13j


South Koreafs presidential election held on December 19, 2007 attracted an inordinate amount of attention from the Japanese media. Major newspapers carried headlines on Lee Myung Bakfs overwhelming victory. The local media was unanimous in manifesting its hope for the improvement of relations between Japan and South Korea, while entertaining expectations that the next administration will make a new pragmatic approach to North Korea.

Japanese media commentary on the election results

In order to gauge Japanese public opinion on the subject, it will be worthwhile to analyze the editorials of major newspapers dated December 20, 2007, out of which the gist of three leading newspapers, namely the Asahi Shimbun, the Mainichi Shimbun, and the Yomiuri Shimbun, is given below. A cursory examination of the remaining papers (The Nikkei and the Sankei Shimbun) reveals that the Sankei Shimbun editorial criticizing the Roh administrationfs foreign policy towards Japan as ga really tight and ideology-based diplomacyh, went on to state, gwe want him (President-elect Lee) to repair the Japan-South Korea relationshiph and that The Nikkei editorial pointed out, gthe improvement of relations with Japan and the United States, which have been strained under the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun, is an important issue for the new president.h

Emphasizing that gWhat we most expect of Lee is to improve bilateral relations with Japan,h the Asahi Shimbun editorial stated, gThe administration of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda attaches importance to relations with neighboring countries, such as China and South Korea, and is re-examining Japanfs Asian policy. . . . we hope the change of government in South Korea will add momentum to recovering Tokyo-Seoul cooperation.h The Asahi observed that the recovery of South Koreafs relations with the United States, which have become strained under the Roh administration, is also an important issue for the new president and expressed expectancy for Leefs leadership, saying, gJapan, the United States and South Korea should regroup and advance cooperation. At the same time, the new South Korean administration should positively promote Japan?China?South Korea cooperation.h

The Mainichi editorial observed that at a time when the denuclearization of North Korea through the six-party talks is reaching a crucial stage, gThe people of South Korea have chosen an administration that advocates a pragmatic approach to North Korea over an administration that emphasizes the ideology of South-North unification. The North Korean government of Kim Jong-il should properly recognize this reality.h It went on, gWe hope that North Korea does not use the change of government in South Korea as a pretext for delaying the trend toward denuclearization.h The Mainichi added, gWithin the six-party talks, it cannot be denied that relations between Japan and South Korea have been strained. Maybe this mood will change as well.h

The Yomiuri Shimbun editorial pointed out, gFor Japan, it is a matter of the utmost interest to see how the change of administration in South Korea will change Seoulfs policies toward Pyongyang.h Drawing attention to the fact that Lee has pledged economic assistance for North Korea on condition that it abandons its development of nuclear weapons, it commented, gRealistically speaking, the country [South Korea] has no option but to press North Korea to scrap its nuclear development program through the six-party talks. The chances of a settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue will recede if South Korea provides large-scale economic assistance outside the six-party talks framework.h The Yomiuri added, gFrom this viewpoint, it may be necessary for South Korea to reconsider its policies regarding the provision of assistance to North Korea, including the large-scale economic aid agreed upon between Roh and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during their summit in October.h

(Japan Brief/ FPCJ, No.0792)

Japanfs Expectations towards the New Administration

(1) It is observed from the above-cited editorials that while the Mainichi and the Yomiuri seem to emphasize their interest in seeing the next administration steer a realistic as well as pragmatic course in the management of the North Korea question, the Asahi entertains hopes that Leefs incoming administration will improve the currently moribund politico-diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Furthermore, the Asahi Shimbun dated February 2 devoted extraordinarily large space to carry an exclusive story based on the joint interview given to it, together with Dong-A Ilbo newspaper and the Wall Street Journal, by President-elect Lee on February 1, especially quoting a passage from his statement that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is likely someone he can work with to build stronger relations and that he believes the relationship will become a more mature one (The Asahi Shimbun, February 4, 2008). In this manner, this paper strongly advocates a future-oriented foreign policy direction that the new South Korean administration is expected to pursue towards Japan. Doubtlessly, this prestigious newspaper is helping to enhance the general publicfs sanguine expectations of the improvement of the bilateral relationship.

Finally, it should also be noted that most of domestic newspapers took favorably the statement made by President-elect Lee at a foreign press conference on January 17, quoting, in particular, that he will promote a mature diplomacy without seeking Japanfs apologies for the past.

(2) However, attention should be paid to the prevailing opinion in Japan that over the past decade, a reconciliation policy coupled with a forward-looking approach, pronounced and initiated by a new incoming administration, has always ended up in an unfulfilled policy, tattered by either historical or territorial tensions or both. It is also commonly viewed that the incumbent Roh Administration has resorted to an extensive use of a nationalist card against Japan to bolster its domestic standing, seriously damaging the Japan-South Korean relationship, despite increasingly closer grassroots interaction through touristic, cultural and sports exchanges, not to say economic interchanges.

Against the above background, it is noteworthy that public opinion in Japan has started to tilt in favor of President-elect Lee Myung Bak, entertaining the belief that a new president offers a chance to revive a bilateral relationship that focuses on the future, not the past. The public apparently expects to see that Japan and South Korea, so close geographically, ideologically and developmentally, may be able to leave behind this time the characterization of bilateral relations over the years described as eso near, yet so far.f

Japanfs Expectations towards the New Administration

3. Resumption of negotiations in 2000

(1) Until April 2000, there were no formal negotiations between Japan and the DPRK except occasional party-to-party contacts as well as government officialsf sporadic encounters realized in various capitals in a strictly unofficial manner. It was after the passing of seven years and a half that the resumption of normalization talks was finally made possible in April 2000, largely thanks to the dispatch of a multi-party parliamentary mission to Pyongyang in December 1999, headed by the former Socialist Prime Minister Murayama, and also to the Japanese Governmentfs hint that it would provide food aid.

(2) Throughout the year 2000, three rounds of negotiations were conducted without producing any concrete results. Japan approached the October 2000 round of normalization talks with the determination to achieve a breakthrough. In advance of the October talks, the Government of Japan even announced a contribution of 500,000 tons of rice to the North, in an apparent attempt to grease the wheels. Despite Japanese hopes of ending the year 2000 with some progress, the DPRK continued its intransigence and dashed all such aspirations. It is to be noted in this connection that Pyongyang was at that time clearly abstaining from any commitment with Japan, in view of possible rapprochement with the United States through a U.S. Presidential visit.

(3) In the process of three rounds of negotiations, Japan and North Korea laid out their terms of negotiation, from positions that appeared almost irreconcilable. The Japanese side emphasized, reflecting strong public opinion, the criticality of resolving the abduction issue and made a demand for addressing the ballistic missile threat while DPRK negotiators firmly entrenched themselves in a immovable negotiating position, demanding apologies over the colonial past and financial compensation and dismissing in toto Japanese counterdemands on the abduction issue and missile concerns.

(4) The normalization talks during the year 2000 had elucidated the following points: First, the abduction issue constitutes, among others, an impediment to normalization talks. Second, occasional disbursements of food aid are now seen as goodwill gestures to bring the North to the table. In other words, material quid pro quos are clearly set in the Japan-DPRK negotiation context. Third, the North has recognized the issue of homecomings for the Japanese spouses of DPRK citizens as a useful new bargaining chip. This particular issue is politically important for Japan and relatively costless for the DPRK. Lastly, at the second round of normalization talks in August 2000, the North seems to have indicated an implicit acceptance of a formula on the issue of colonial compensation, proposed by the Japanese side that following the model of the 1965 Basic Agreement with South Korea, Japan would offer economic aid in lieu of historical compensation.

II. Prime Minister Koizumifs visits to the DPRK and subsequent engagement process

1. Koizumifs first visit

(1) Prime Minister Koizumifs visit to Pyongyang on September 17, 2002 was an unprecedented diplomatic overture in Japanfs post-Cold War diplomacy. Hiramatsu Kenji, one of the negotiators who had participated in the preparatory negotiations with the North Korean side for Koizumifs visit, states in an article(2), gthe negotiations were conceived as an extension of previous diplomatic overtures and based on the lessons learned in the pasth, and further points out, gfollowing the instructions of the prime minister and foreign minister, the Japanese negotiators aimed first to clarify the fundamental principles upon which Japan would proceed, and to convey these principles in no uncertain terms to their North Korean counterpartsh and gJapan was prepared to work in good faith toward normalization of bilateral relations; it hoped North Korea would in turn take earnest steps toward resolving abduction, security and other issues of concern to Japan and Japan would not proceed with negotiations if, in particular, the abduction issue was not addressed.h It should be noted here that the preliminary negotiating process this time was unprecedented in Japanese diplomacy since it was unmediated by outside parties.

(2) Premier Koizumifs visit had culminated in the signing of the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration with Chairman Kim Jong Il, which aimed at the goal of establishing a platform for resolving outstanding issues and breaking the deadlock in bilateral negotiations. What was particularly noteworthy was the fact that in this Joint Declaration, North Korea had accepted not only Japanfs apology for her colonial rule but also a settlement package similar to that agreed upon with South Korea in 1965, in lieu of its demand for reparations for Japanfs colonization of Korea.

(2) gGAIKO FORUMh English Edition Winter 2003 Vol.2, No.4 gLead up to the Signing of the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declarationh By HIRAMATSU Kenji, p.21

(3) At the Pyongyang Summit, Chairman Kim Jong Il had acknowledged the abductions as fact, denounced them as a regrettable relic of the past, expressed his wish to apologize and promised to prevent further abductions. It seemed that the North Korean leadership had felt Chairman Kimfs acknowledgement of the abductions would clear the way for the normalization of relations. This has not proved the case. The admission of guilt and particularly the revelation that eight of the thirteen abductees had died outraged the Japanese public, making the mass media throughout Japan react with indignation.

(4) One determining factor leading to the holding of the Summit meeting was the United States Governmentfs hardened stance towards Pyongyang after the September 11 terrorist attacks, causing very grave concern for its regime survival. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Pyongyang was prompted to make overtures to Japan, which it believes has the best rapport with Washington in East Asia, with the expectation that Japan would serve as a politico-diplomatic shield against an imminent U.S. threat. Another factor accounting for the Northfs determination to reengage with Japan was its chronic economic conditions, worsened by economy policy changes introduced in July 2002 that led to an enormous jump in the price level and a possible high inflation in the absence of a huge injection of capital and goods.

(5) Koizumifs abrupt visit to Pyongyang seemed at first to open up a new era in Japan-North Korea relations and engage the two countries towards much awaited normalization. As was pointed out above, however, the animosity toward North Korea as a consequence of Chairman Kimfs confession of the kidnapping converged with sharp fear when Pyongyang acknowledged in October 2002 the enriched uranium program. The negative fall-out of the kidnapping admission and the nuclear confession completely derailed the Japan-North Korean normalization process. It was, therefore, clearly evident that the 12th round of negotiations, which took place in October 2002 in compliance with the Pyongyang Declaration, was bound to fail from the start.

2. Koizumifs second visit

Prime Minister Koizumifs second visit to Pyongyang realized in May 2004 had met with an unfavorable reception in Japan. His return was apparently motivated by the political circumstances prevailing at that time, calling for an early solution to the remaining abduction issues, in view of an impasse in the negotiation process at official level. Koizumifs visit was prepared through political contacts in such a manner as was reminiscent of Kim Il Sunfs early overtures to Japan at the end of the Cold War. The only tangible result brought about by Koizumifs second visit was Kim Jong Ilfs agreement to release the members of the abducted families, who had been practically kept as hostages, in exchange for Japanfs commitment to offer 250,000 tons of food and 10 million dollars worth of medical supplies.

III. Japanfs role to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula

1. Needless to say, the problem of the Korean Peninsula is primarily a matter between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, while it is to be emphasized that a preponderant factor bearing on North Koreafs security is its amelioration of relationship with the United States. It is abundantly clear that any progress in U.S.-DPRK relations is dependent on Pyongyangfs willingness to deal squarely with all relevant issues, inter alia, nuclear and missile issues.

2. The significance of the normalization of the relationship between Japan and North Korea is not limited to the two countries themselves. Normalization of relations, when achieved, will be definitely a very positive contributing factor in the building of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and subsequently throughout Northeast Asia.

3. Prime Minister Koizumifs first visit seemed at the outset to have achieved a diplomatic breakthrough toward the normalization of the two countries. Without any shadow of doubt, Chairman Kim Jong Ilfs exercise of diplomacy by confession on the abduction issue was strongly motivated by his imperative to secure vast economic resources from Japan to rebuild his failing economy, the reconstruction of which is a sine qua non for his emilitary-firstf government. Paragraph two of the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration states: gBoth sides shared the recognition that, providing economic co-operation after the normalization by the Japanese side to the DPRK side, including grant aids, long-term loans with low interest rates and such assistances as humanitarian assistance through international organizations, over a period of time deemed appropriate by both sides, and providing other loans and credits by such financial institutions as the Japan Bank for International Co-operation with a view to supporting private economic activities, would be consistent with the spirit of this Declaration, and decided that they would sincerely discuss the specific scales and contents of the economic co-operation in the normalization talks.h As is made so explicit in the above-cited Declaration, economic cooperation from Japan will be made possible only after the normalization of bilateral relations is achieved.

4. The fact that normalization talks are at present completely stalled shows that North Korea does not seem, under the present international geopolitical circumstances, in a hurry to seek accommodation with Japan by using its abduction card, i.e. offering a comprehensive solution to the whole of the abduction issue. Pyongyangfs volte-face in the policy priority setting from Tokyo to Washington should be understood in the context that it believes there will be no immediate breakthrough in the stalled bilateral negotiations in view of the highly negative public opinion against the DPRK widely prevailing in Japan.

5. In the absence of substantive progress in the abduction talks, Japanese public opinion continues to mount its critical tone against North Korea, now urging the Government to unilaterally impose economic sanctions on that country. Succumbing to a mounting public outcry, the Japanese Diet has passed of late a law to revise the existing Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law and a Port Call Prohibition Bill. Although the Japanese Government has not yet yielded to the increasing public pressure, it, however, is quietly enforcing a revised rule to the Law on Liability for Oil Pollution Damage introduced in March, requiring all foreign ships of 100 tons or more to carry protection and indemnity insurance to cover costs from oil spills or running aground. The new regulation is applicable to all vessels, irrespective of flags, and yet it is widely seen as a way to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang to resolve the abduction issue.

6. Finally, attention should be paid to the statement made during bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Six-Party Talks held in February 2004 by Kim Kye Gwan, the North Korean vice foreign minister, to his Japanese counterpart Yabunaka Mitoji that gprogress in the abduction issue is correlated with the nuclear issue and U.S. relationsh (The Asahi Shimbun, February 27, 2004). This statement clearly explains the present stalled state of affairs between the two countries. In conclusion, it is to be pointed out here again that Japanfs contribution in terms of economic cooperation to peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula is contingent upon a definite resolution of nuclear issues and resultant improvement of U.S.-DPRK relations.