Author: Lionel Babicz, University of Sydney
There are more than geostrategic, diplomatic and military factors behind the importance of Japan for North Korea and of North Korea for Japan: their present relationship is also rooted in history.
North Korea meticulously cultivates the memory of colonialism, resistance and liberation, starting with the gradual takeover of Korea during the Meiji period (1868–1912), the 1910 annexation and the hardships of the colonial period (1910–1945). This is the tragic background against which stands the glorious Kim Il-sung — the dauntless leader of the anti-Japanese struggle. According to the official DPRK narrative, ‘the heroic anti-Japanese armed struggle of the Korean revolutionaries and people led by president Kim Il-sung achieved a brilliant victory, and thus Korea was liberated’.
No wonder that Japan’s alleged crimes occupy such a prominent place in North Korea’s propaganda: the resistance to Japanese evil is one of the principles underlying the regime’s legitimacy.
As for Japan, it is not so much the pre-colonial and colonial past that affects its attitude toward North Korea as the post-war history of the bilateral relationship, where the overall narrative is one of Japanese goodwill met by North Korean malfeasance.
Contrary to the present hostility, links between Tokyo and Pyongyang have been maintained for a long period of time — and not always on a negative mode. From the 1950s to the early 1980s, some 100,000 Koreans from Japan returned to North Korea. In 1965, when normalising its relations with South Korea, Tokyo tried to keep a door open to future official links with Pyongyang by attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to avoid recognising South Korea’s authorities as ‘the only lawful government in Korea’. Although not exempt from tensions, the 1970s and 80s were marked by a number of private sector agreements with North Korea, as well as a few sports team visits.
The end of the Cold War in 1989 brought a new era of prudent rapprochement. In 1990, a Japanese joint parliamentary delegation comprised of members of the government and the opposition visited North Korea, paving the way to the 1991 opening of normalisation talks which have yet to reach their conclusion.
The culmination of this period of (very) relative detente was the 17 September 2002 one-day visit to Pyongyang of then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. It was concluded by the Pyongyang Declaration in which both sides vowed to establish ‘a fruitful political, economic and cultural relationship’ and determined that ‘they would make every possible effort for an early normalisation of the relations’. They even went into the specifics of a possible agreement: it would follow the formula of the 1965 Japan–South Korea Treaty such that Japan provides North Korea economic co-operation in exchange for North Korean waiving of pre-1945 legal claims.
Paradoxically, Koizumi’s visit also marked the starting point of the degradation of the Tokyo–Pyongyang relationship. This deterioration was sparked by the North Korean acknowledgement of past kidnappings of Japanese citizens, which started the still unfolding abduction saga.
Much mystery still surrounds the affair. In 1988, the Japanese government announced there were suspicions three couples had been abducted by North Korea at the end of the 1970s. The facts were acknowledged by Pyongyang in September 2002 during Koizumi’s visit: 13 Japanese had been officially abducted, of which North Korea said five were still alive. The survivors were allowed to visit Japan the following month, but during that stay, the Japanese government decided not to return them to North Korea. Pyongyang reacted angrily to the move, but in 2004 Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea a second time, securing the release of all eight relatives of the five abductees, who were allowed to settle in Japan.
Spurred by the families and right-wing lobbyists, many Japanese politicians have since repeatedly insisted that some of the abductees declared dead are still alive, and have asked North Korea to return them all. Doubtless the North Korean kidnap victims are used in Japan as a domestic political tool, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself is active in keeping the story alive. He recently mentioned the issue in his address at the annual UN General Assembly in New York in September 2017, before meeting the abductees’ families and vowing to bring all the victims back home.
As a result of all this, the public perception of North Korea in Japan has only deteriorated since 2002. While both Koizumi and Kim intended to put the episode behind them, they actually created a fierce public backlash. In Japan, the abductions were seen as the ultimate proof of North Korean duplicity and unreliability, and since then North Korea has been viewed with increasing suspicion and hostility.
The Japanese colonial rule of Korea and the abduction issue both cast their shadows on current tensions, which further complicates and aggravates a highly volatile situation. Both issues are linked. The abduction issue blocks any progress toward a Japan–North Korea normalisation of ties, while a Japanese offer to resume the talks on the basis of the 2002 formula may break the abduction gridlock and convince North Korea to release any information it may still hold on the kidnapped Japanese.
Despite impossible odds, this formula may eventually help break the deadlock and become part of a wider agreement with North Korea before the situation deteriorates further.
Lionel Babicz is a lecturer in Japanese history at the University of Sydney.