The Strange Record of 15 Years of Japan-North Korea Negotiations
Haruki Wada, Gavan McCormack
The Strange Record of 15 Years of Japan-North Korea Negotiations (French translation at Recherches Internationales No. 76, 2006, pp. 111-34.)
By Gavan McCormack and Wada Haruki
No country is closer to Japan than Korea. From ancient times, the two neighbors have enjoyed intimate exchanges. Yet today Japan has relations with only one of the two Korean states, and even that relationship is contentious. While Japan normalized relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) in 1965, it has not yet formally recognized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea). This asymmetry is a major obstacle not only to repairing Japanese-Korean relations overall, but ending the Cold War in Asia.
Although Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro made two diplomatic visits to North Korea in the last four years, raising prospects of a breakthrough in Japan-North Korea relations, progress on normalization remains stalled. Several major conflicts hang over the discussions: North Korea’s overall military posture, its nuclear weapons program, and its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. In order to return to the negotiating table and resolve these issues, the two countries must not only address their outstanding disputes but also grapple with the historical roots of the conflict.
History remains an open wound in Japanese-Korean relations. The citizens of both Koreas endured great suffering and harm under Japanese colonial rule. Yet when Japan normalized relations with South Korea in 1965, it expressed no regret or apology for the past. Only in August 1995 did Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi express Japan’s regret and apology for the pain and harm done by the four decades of colonialism. Three years later, the governments of Japan and South Korea signed a Joint Declaration affirming the contents of the Murayama Statement. Yet, even after forty years of normalization and with millions of people and billions of dollars of goods crossing each year between the two countries, the wounds inflicted by Japanese imperialism are scarcely healed and easily inflamed. For instance, when Japan laid claim to a disputed island between the two countries – Tokdo (in Korean) or Takeshima (in Japanese) – heated demonstrations broke out throughout South Korea. A subsequent speech by South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun in March 2005 roundly criticized Japan, describing the Murayama Statement and the Joint Declaration of 1998 as inadequate.
However belated and incomplete, the process of normalization between Japan and South Korea has at least been underway for forty years. Japan’s relationship with the northern half of the peninsula is considerably less advanced. For instance, until 2002, Japan neglected even to apologize to North Korea. If history remains a contested issue between Tokyo and Seoul, it is an even thornier topic between Tokyo and Pyongyang. North Korea’s founder and first leader was an anti-Japanese partisan leader, Kim Il Sung. The fierce hatred between the partisans and the Japanese “bandit suppression” forces became the very founding spirit of the country. This history makes a Japanese apology and expression of regret for that past indispensable to the normalization of relations.
Japan’s role in the Korean War is also a sore point. When the United States entered the war to assist South Korea, Japan automatically became an important base for U.S. military, logistical and technical activities. Japan’s National Railway, Coast Guard, and Red Cross all cooperated in the war on the U.S. side. Japanese sailors led the 1st Marine Division to their Inchon landing, and minesweepers of the Japanese coast guard cleared the way for U.S. forces to land at Wonsan. Throughout the war, U.S. B-29 bombers from Yokota (near Tokyo) and Kadena (in Okinawa) flew ceaseless bombing raids on North Korean towns, dams, and other facilities. Japan did not decide to provide this support in accordance with any decision by its government. As a defeated and occupied country, it was unconditionally obliged to obey the orders of the occupation forces. Although the Japanese people therefore have no sense or memory of having participated in this war, North Korea considers Japan a belligerent country that provided full support for the United States and South Korea.
For 52 years since the cessation of hostilities, the ceasefire in the Korean War has persisted without a peace treaty. U.S. bases are still in Japan, and Japan and North Korea remain locked in confrontation. During this time, North Korea engaged in irregular activities to gather intelligence on U.S. and Japanese bases, sending spy vessels and agents with false passports, and at times abducting Japanese people in order, presumably, to secure passports for spies sent overseas. In the 1990s, the development and deployment of medium-range missiles and the suspicions over North Korean nuclear weapon development plans heightened tensions between the two countries. As victims of the 1945 U.S. nuclear attack, the Japanese people are extremely sensitive to the emergence of any new nuclear weapon-possessing country among its neighbors. Ending the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the deployment of its missiles aimed at Japan is a major subject for Japan-North Korea negotiations. Naturally the North Korean side will also make proposals about U.S. bases in Japan.
In September 1990, nearly half a century after the end of colonial rule, negotiations between Japan and North Korea began on these matters. North Korea had begun to rethink its position following the end of the Cold War and the opening of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and South Korea. The Japanese government knocked on North Korea’s door, expressing regret over past colonial rule, and a mission went to Pyongyang consisting of Kanemaru Shin of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Tanabe Makoto of the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) bearing a personal letter from Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru. A three-party (LDP, JSP, and Workers Party of Korea) declaration on normalization was adopted. The Japanese side expressed an apology and a desire to compensate for the misery and misfortune caused by 36 years of Japanese colonialism and for the losses incurred in the 45 years since, and a readiness to open diplomatic relations.
Japan-North Korea negotiations on normalization then opened in January 1991, continued until May 1992, before breaking down following the eighth round. Combining to block progress were Japan’s resistance to any compensation for post-1945 “losses” to North Korea (despite the “Three Party Agreement  the negative attitude of the South Korean government toward any Japanese rapprochement with North Korea, suspicions over the North Korean nuclear program, and, not least, U.S. pressures on Japan. Kanemaru himself was arrested on corruption charges in November 1992. In 1995, the Murayama cabinet made an effort to reopen negotiations, but ended up only providing some rice aid to the North. It was not an opportune time for rapprochement. Missile tests and various spy ship encroachments into Japanese waters complicated negotiations as did the nuclear crisis that in 1993-94 brought the United States and North Korea to the brink of war.
More ominously, another issue gradually came to overshadow all other concerns: North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens fifteen years earlier. The suspicions began in the 1980s. Then, in 1987, KAL Flight 858 exploded over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 people aboard. South Korean courts convicted a North Korean woman named Kim Hyon Hui, who had been traveling on a fake Japanese passport. She stated that a woman abducted from Japan, whom she knew as Lee Eun Hye, had taught her Japanese . A few years later, a North Korean agent who had defected to South Korea gave evidence that he had seen a woman named Megumi at a training facility for agents. Yokota Megumi was thirteen years old when she disappeared from the Japanese port city of Niigata in 1977. Her parents immediately took up her case, giving rise to the movement for the rescue of abducted Japanese. The issue of the abductions became – and remains in 2005 - the major single stumbling block to reconciliation.
On September 17, 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi surprised the international community by visiting Pyongyang. This unexpected turn of events was nevertheless the result of long, secret negotiations that began at the initiative of the North Korean side at the end of 2001. “Mr. X,” a North Korean who enjoyed the confidence of leader Kim Jong Il, approached Tanaka Hitoshi, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asia-Pacific Bureau. Tanaka reported to Prime Minister Koizumi, and secret contacts began. The only ones privy to these negotiations were the prime minister, his foreign minister, and three other high-ranking officials. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shinzo, who favored a hard line on the abduction issue, did not find out about the negotiations until they were revealed at a Pyongyang meeting of bureau heads of the two Foreign Ministries in August 2002. The announcement of the Koizumi visit came at the end of the same month.
The September meeting between the Japanese and North Korean leaders was tense and dramatic. It lasted a single afternoon. Koizumi reportedly took with him his own bento lunchbox to Pyongyang and then brought it back to Tokyo that night, unopened. The two leaders agreed to “make every possible effort for an early normalization of relations.” Koizumi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for “the tremendous damage and suffering” inflicted on the people of Korea during the colonial era, while Kim Jong Il apologized for the abductions of 13 Japanese and for the dispatch of spy ships in Japanese waters.
Kim Jong Il and Koizumi Junichiro in Pyongyang
More specifically, Kim admitted and apologized for the abduction between 1977 and 1982 of a group of Japanese civilians, among them a schoolgirl, a beautician, a cook, and three dating couples whisked away from remote Japanese beaches. In addition, North Korean agents – now believed to have been Japanese Red Army hijackers who settled in Pyongyang in 1970 – abducted three students who had been touring Europe and brought them to Pyongyang either to teach Japanese-language courses to intelligence agents or so that overseas operatives could appropriate their identities. Insisting that he had no personal knowledge of all this, Kim blamed the abductions on “some elements of a special agency of state” who were “carried away by fanaticism and desire for glory.”
Three weeks after the Summit, five of the thirteen original abductees returned to Japan in a special plane. The “Pyongyang Five” – two married couples snatched on summer evening dates by the Japan Sea in 1978 and a woman seized as a 19-year old nurse on the island of Sado in the same summer – returned to Tokyo on October 15, 2002 for what was supposed to be only 10 days to two weeks. According to the agreement between the two governments, the Five would then return to Pyongyang to work out their long-term future and that of their families.
Kim also apologized for the incursions of “mystery ships” into Japanese waters. Just a week before the Pyongyang meeting, Japan salvaged a “mystery ship” it had sunk after a brief gun battle in the East China Sea in December 2001, leaving Kim little choice but to acknowledge the incursion. A Special Forces unit had been engaged in exercises, he claimed lamely: “I had not imagined that it would go to such lengths and do such things . . . The Special Forces are a relic of the past and I want to take steps to wind them up.” The North Korean side attributed these acts of abduction and spying – clear violations of the human rights of Japanese citizens and of the sovereignty of the Japanese state – to the abnormal situation between the two countries and promised that they would never be repeated.
Japan’s apology, meanwhile, was made possible when Pyongyang dropped its demand for compensation in exchange for the promise of Japanese economic “cooperation.” Both sides stood to benefit from such cooperation. According to calculations by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, normalization would lead to substantial “aid and development” programs, opening lucrative business opportunities for core factions of the Party and their associates in the recession-hit construction industry in the future building of roads, bridges, dams, power stations, railways, and other elements of North Korean infrastructure. For Pyongyang, on the other hand, the need for economic reconstruction outweighed reservations over abandoning the claims for compensation for colonialism and war.
Initially Koizumi’s diplomacy and the moves to normalize relations with North Korea drew a positive public response in Japan. North Korea’s admission and apology for its criminal actions was an act without precedent in its history. Kim Jong Il’s conciliatory response, which conceded so much to his old enemy Japan, showed how determined he was to achieve a breakthrough in relations. Yet instead of taking this apology as a desire to turn over a new leaf, Japan and the United States denounced the North Korean leader and called for further punishment. As for Japan’s apology, it was completely forgotten in Tokyo and ignored by the Japanese media. The “harm” caused by Japan over thirty-five years of colonial rule seemed to the dominant media and much of the public as nothing compared to the harm done to Japan in more recent decades.
As the news of North Korea’s admissions sank in, and as the abductees themselves returned, widespread shock, anguish and anger followed. Japanese anger flowed over Pyongyang’s explanations of the fate of the remaining eight abductees. Much of the information strained credulity. One couple was said to have died between 1979 and 1981, both of heart failure although the husband was only 24 years old and his wife 27. Further, the husband allegedly suffered a heart attack when swimming on a day that, it turned out, a typhoon had battered the Korean coast. A second couple was said to have died within a week of each other in 1986, one of cirrhosis of the liver and the other of a traffic accident. A third couple died along with their child as the result of a defective coke heater. The bodies of all of these people conveniently disappeared without a trace in the mid-1990s, washed away in floods, dam bursts, and landslides. Pyongyang reported that the remains of a seventh casualty, allegedly killed in a traffic accident in 1996, had first been washed away in the floods, but then recovered and re-interred in a common grave. Subjected to DNA testing in Japan, the remains turned out to be those of a middle-aged woman. The eighth, and most poignant, case is that of the schoolgirl Yokota Megumi. According to Pyongyang, she had married a North Korean man and given birth to a daughter, Hye Gyong, but had suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1993 when her daughter was just five years old.
Angry, disbelieving Japanese families of the victims denounced Pyongyang’s explanations as a travesty and insisted that their loved ones must still be alive and should be brought back, if necessary “by force.” The suspicion spread that there might be more Japanese abductees than at first suspected – perhaps as many as 40 or even 100.
The media showered attention on the abductees. The Japanese public greeted the drama of the slow “recovery” of their Japanese-ness and the eventual casting off of their Kim Jong Il badges with tears of national relief. Yet the mainstream media failed to mention that during the colonial era Japan had abducted hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work as prostitutes (“comfort women”) for Japanese soldiers or to work in mines, factories, and low-ranking jobs in the Japanese military such as guarding Western prisoners during World War 11. Viewed in this larger historical context, by Koreans north and south, the transformation of the obviously criminal abductions of thirteen Japanese citizens into the crime of the century and the Japanese into the ultimate victims of Asian brutality had a painful air of unreality.
The abduction issue owes its centrality in Japanese politics to a national movement composed of three main strands. The National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Abducted by North Korea (Sukuukai, or the “Rescue Association”), the National Association of Families of Japanese Abducted by North Korea (Kazokukai, or “Families Association),” and the Association of Dietmembers for the Japanese Abductees (Rachi Giin Renmei”) all believe in applying maximum pressure on North Korea and, should negotiations prove unsuccessful, rescuing the abducted. Sato Katsumi, head of a small think-tank specializing in Korean problems and founder of the Rescue Association, has written that Japan should focus on “operations” that provoke the Kim Jong Il regime to collapse from within . In other words, the abduction problem serves as a means to the end of forcing the collapse of the North Korean system . And yet, the overthrow of the Pyongyang government, which many supporters of these abductee organizations unwittingly support, will likely create such political and social upheaval as to make family reunions rather improbable.
Responding in part to pressure from these three groups, Japanese lawmakers in the ruling party argued that the five abductees who returned to Japan should not be sent back to North Korea – in direct contravention of the agreement Koizumi had just negotiated. The Japanese government additionally demanded the handover of the abductees’ children, i.e. their “return” to a country of which they knew nothing. Several of the children were now adults. Five of them were at that point going about their lives in Pyongyang with no idea that their parents were Japanese, let alone abducted Japanese. Nor did they know that their parents would not be allowed to come home. DNA tests showed in October that Kim Hye Gyong, the supposed daughter of Yokoga Megumi, was indeed biologically tied to Yokota’s parents, bearing out North Korea’s claims. Although Megumi’s father, Yokota Shigeru, expressed a strong desire to meet his grandchild, even if that meant traveling to North Korea, officials of the Rescue Association persuaded him against making such a visit.
As the drama of these families unfolded before the nation, major television channels, newspapers, and journal publishers catered to, and in turn cultivated, a mass market of hostility, fear, and prejudice. From 1991 to 2003, Japanese publishers brought out some 600 books on North Korea, the overwhelming majority of them virulently hostile . After the Koizumi visit to Pyongyang in September 2002, television news offered saturation coverage of North Korea, often three or four programs during a single day, each exposing one or another nightmare aspect of the North Korean state or society, from defectors and starvation to corruption, missiles, and nuclear threats. The memoirs of the defector Hwang Jang Yop, published in Korean with the title “I saw the Truth of History: Memoirs of Hwang Jang Yop,” received the Japanese title of “Declaration of War on Kim Jong Il: Memoirs of Hwang Jang Yop.” The sequel had an even more lurid title: “Have No Fear of a Mad Dog”. A manga (comic book) life of Kim Jong Il published in mid-2003, depicting Kim as a violent, bloodthirsty, and depraved despot, sold half a million copies in its first three months, probably more than all books ever published in English about Korea put together. Weekly and monthly magazine stories about North Korea poured out at a phenomenal rate. Japanese readers seemed to relish stories of unmitigated “evil,” especially when spiced with prurient detail. Nothing sold better than details of Kim Jong Il’s complicated family life, his wives, mistresses, and the “yorokobigumi” or “happiness brigade” of young women alleged to be his harem.
As the mood of anti-North Korean hatred and contempt spread through Japanese society, prominent figures involved in the attempt to achieve normalization faced virulent abuse. When an unknown assailant set a time bomb at the residence of Tanaka Hitoshi, the foreign ministry official who had been involved in negotiating with North Korea in 2001-2, Tokyo’s popular and powerful governor, Ishihara Shintaro, promptly declared that “[h]e got what was coming to him.” When challenged, Ishihara said he had not meant to support terror, but added that Tanaka “deserved to die ten thousand deaths.”
When follow-up talks on normalization were held in Kuala Lumpur at the end of October 2002, Japanese delegates demanded the unconditional handover of the children of the five returned abductees and announced that no other discussions or negotiations could take place until the date for such return was fixed. In an act of breathtaking insensitivity, if not hypocrisy, Japan also demanded compensation from North Korea for the abductions. Since Tokyo had always ruled out any compensation to the victims of the colonial era, including the many thousands of forced laborers, the Japanese message to Pyongyang therefore seemed to be that Korean and Japanese lives were of different value. A handful of Japanese lives weighed far more than hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Koreans. The North Korean side, meanwhile, demanded that the Five be sent back to Pyongyang. It viewed the attachment of new conditions for the reopening of negotiations between the two states as a breach of the Pyongyang Declaration. The fragile basis of trust on which Koizumi and Kim had pledged to launch the relationship was shattered.
From his powerful position within the government, Abe Shinzo took the view that North Korea would be forced by poverty and desperation to accept Japan’s terms. “In Japan,” he said in November 2002, “there is food and there is oil, and since North Korea cannot survive the winter without them, it will crack before too long.” But North Korea did not crack. Instead, a prolonged stalemate, lasting not one but two winters, followed.
The downturn in Japanese-North Korean relations after the abduction revelations and the return of the Five to Japan encouraged the hard-liners in Japan. In February 2004, for instance, the Diet passed a bill that put a stop to trade and to the remission of funds to North Korea, preparing the legal grounds for imposing economic sanctions. Although it was clear that Prime Minister Koizumi did not intend to implement it, hardliners passed the bill to intimidate North Korea.
And yet, negotiations continued behind the scenes to reopen normalization talks. On May 22, 2004, Prime Minister Koizumi returned to Pyongyang to meet a second time with Kim Jong Il. Koizumi explained his purpose as he departed for Pyongyang: “[i]t is in the national interest of both countries to normalize the current abnormal Japan-North Korea relationship, to turn a hostile relationship into a friendly relationship, confrontation to cooperation.” In Pyongyang, Koizumi reaffirmed his desire to establish diplomatic relations and promised that, so long as the Pyongyang Declaration was adhered to, Tokyo would not implement sanctions. He also pledged 250,000 tons in food aid and $10 million worth of medical supplies, and promised to address the question of discrimination against Korean residents in Japan. In response, the North Korean side agreed to consider the five returned abductees permanently rather than temporarily returned, to permit their children to leave the country with Koizumi, to allow the American army defector, Charles Jenkins, and the two children of Jenkins and Soga Hitomi to meet with Soga in a third country, and to reopen “sincere reinvestigation” into the eight abductees whose whereabouts were uncertain. Both sides agreed to return to the basic principles of the Pyongyang Declaration and renew constructive negotiations.
Later, when asked his impression of the North Korean leader, Koizumi told the Diet, ”I guess for many his image is that of a dictator, fearful and weird, but when you actually meet and talk with him he is mild-mannered and cheerful, quick to make jokes ... quick-witted” . In other words, Koizumi confirmed the view of Kim Dae Jung and Madeleine Albright, among others, that Kim Jong Il was a man to do business with. In fact, so keen was Kim to talk with George W. Bush that he suggested that Koizumi provide the music so that they could sing together - even to the point that their throats became sore . Subsequently, Koizumi pledged to normalize the Japan-North Korea relationship within his remaining two years of office, if possible within a single year.
The Families Association roundly castigated Koizumi, describing the mission as having brought about the “worst possible outcome” because he had not personally brought back Soga’s family or secured adequate explanation of the many anomalies in the original report. Most TV commentators and presenters echoed this criticism by describing the visit as a “diplomatic failure.” Yet a May 23rd poll in the Asahi Shimbun found that 67 per cent of respondents evaluated Koizumi’s mission positively. On the question of the opening of diplomatic relations, 47 per cent were in favor, considerably more than the 38 per cent opposed. Other surveys, by the Mainichi and Yomiuri newspapers, produced similar results. Furthermore, when the members of the Association criticized the Prime Minister in very emotional terms, protest messages from all over the country poured into their offices in response.
The success of Koizumi’s second mission hinged on the reinvestigation into the missing eight abductees. The initial report in November did not produce any significant revelations. The head of the Japanese delegation, returning to Japan, reported the North Korean response that all eight were dead and that there was no record of the others (including Soga Hitomi’s mother) sought by Japan ever having entered the country. The reinvestigation also found that most of the relevant data on these eight people had been erased and only a few documents could be provided. Japanese investigators did manage to interview some persons connected with the cases, however, the most important being Kim Chol Jun, the husband of Yokota Megumi. In 2002, the North Korean side described Kim as “an employee of a trading company,” but in 2004 he turned out to have been working for the very “special agency” that Kim Jong Il held responsible for the abductions in the first place. Although he spent two and a half hours talking with Japanese officials, Kim Chol Jun declined to be photographed or videoed, or to provide any DNA sample that might prove that he was actually Hye Gyong’s father. Nor did he allow Japanese officials to take away for examination the photograph that showed him with Yokota Megumi and their daughter. He did, however, hand over what he said were the remains of his wife that he had dug up after the initial burial, then had cremated and kept .
On December 8, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hosoda Hosoyuki announced the result of the officially commissioned analysis. The National Research Institute of Police Science had been unable to produce a result but the medical department of Teikyo University, which has a high reputation in the field of mitochondrial DNA analysis, had been more successful. Isolating DNA from the remains, it found no trace of Megumi’s DNA but instead detected the DNA of two unrelated people. The government concluded that the remains were not Megumi’s and announced that it was “extremely regrettable that the other side’s investigation has not been sincere.” Japan sent a stern protest to Pyongyang.
On December 24, the Japanese government published its detailed report on the results of its investigation of the materials brought back from Pyongyang. It concluded that there was “absolutely no evidence” to support North Korea’s claim that the eight had died (or that two other alleged abductees had ever entered the country in the first place). The government believed in the “possibility of their being still alive,” and demanded their immediate return, on pain of severe, unspecified penalties . This unwarranted leap of logic – from the failure of North Korea’s reinvestigation to establish convincingly the death of the abductee victims to the assumption that they must be alive and the demand that they be returned – passed unnoticed in the furor of anger at North Korea.
To protest what it construed as North Korea’s deliberate deceit, the Japanese government froze the dispatch of any further “humanitarian” aid -- after half the grain and medical supplies promised by Koizumi in May had been sent -- thus making clear that the aid had been political rather than humanitarian. It also inched closer toward the imposition of sanctions. It was hard to see how the gap between Japan’s insistence on return and North Korea’s insistence that the disputed abductees were all dead could ever be bridged.
North Korea’s formal response came on January 24 in the form of a Central News Agency “Memorandum.” On the problematic bones, it stressed that the Police Institute and Teikyo University analyses had come to different conclusions and argued that it was unscientific and improper to place absolute weight on one conclusion only. It pointed out that since human remains in North Korea are cremated at 1200 degrees centigrade it was “common sense” that DNA analysis could not produce any result. And it protested that the name of the analyst was not attached to the expert opinion. The Memorandum’s conclusion - that the outcome of the analysis was “a fabrication by corrupt elements” – may have been an exaggeration. But the doubts it raised over the outcome of the Japanese analysis could not be lightly dismissed. The Memorandum also denounced Japan for breaking its promise, made in a statement signed by the head of the Japanese delegation at the time when the bones were handed over, ”to hand these remains directly to Yokota Megumi’s parents, and not to publish the matter.” It concluded by saying that “[n]ot only has Japan gone to the lengths of fabricating the results of an analysis of human bones and refused to concede that the abduction problem has been settled, but it also completely denies our sincerity and effort. It is they who have pushed North Korea-Japan relations to this worst-ever pitch of confrontation.”
It goes without saying that North Korean statements have little credibility in Japan. In the dispute over the mitochondrial DNA analysis, the Japanese government's pronouncements were taken, at least initially, as definitive. Japan's technology was assumed to have exposed North Korea’s deception. It did not help North Korea's case that its account of Megumi’s life had been full of inconsistencies from the start. There was the alteration of the date of her death and the confusion over which hospital had treated her. There was the improbable story of her stroll on the hospital grounds when she escaped the attention of the accompanying doctor and hanged herself from a pine tree, using a rope she had made out of her own clothing . Also, in two other cases, Japanese DNA tests failed to establish a connection between the victims and the remains provided by North Korea.
Although Japan did not take North Korea’s protest seriously, Pyongyang gained support from an unexpected quarter: the prestigious international scientific journal Nature. In a February 3, 2005 article, Nature revealed the identity of the person at Teikyo University who had conducted the analysis. This analyst, Yoshii Tomio of Teikyo’s medical department, admitted to Nature that he had no previous experience in the analysis of cremated specimens and described his tests as inconclusive. He compared the samples to “stiff sponges that can absorb anything” and that could be very easily contaminated by anyone coming in contact with them. In short, the authoritative scientific journal pronounced the Japanese analysis as anything but definitive.
Furthermore, the Teikyo lab had used up the five tiny samples, making independent verification impossible. Yoshii Tomio himself, in a 1999 textbook on DNA analysis, wrote that because the DNA extraction procedure was so delicate, subject to error, and likely to meet challenge in the courts, the principle of independent confirmation was crucial . In other words, in meeting his commission from the Japanese government, Yoshii had not followed the practice he himself prescribed.
When the Japanese government's chief cabinet secretary, Hosoda Hiroyuki, called the article inadequate and a misrepresentation of the government-commissioned analysis, Nature responded with a highly unusual editorial:
"Japan is right to doubt North Korea's every statement. But its interpretation of the DNA tests has crossed the boundary of science's freedom from political interference. Nature's interview with the scientist who carried out the tests raised the possibility that the remains were merely contaminated, making the DNA tests inconclusive… The problem is not in the science but in the fact that the government is meddling in scientific matters at all. Science runs on the premise that experiments, and all the uncertainty involved in them, should be open for scrutiny. Arguments made by other Japanese scientists that the tests should have been carried out by a larger team are convincing…
Japan's policy seems a desperate effort to make up for what has been a diplomatic failure ... Part of the burden for Japan's political and diplomatic failure is being shifted to a scientist for doing his job -- deriving conclusions from experiments and presenting reasonable doubts about them. But the friction between North Korea and Japan will not be decided by a DNA test. Likewise, the interpretation of DNA test results cannot be decided by the government of either country. Dealing with North Korea is no fun, but it doesn't justify breaking the rules of separation between science and politics ."
Apart from a brief reference in one weekly journal, it was months before any word of this extraordinary exchange penetrated into the Japanese mass media. Specialists in the highly specialized field of DNA tended, however, to take the same, critical view as Nature. The Asahi on 10 May quoted the senior anthropologist and DNA specialist at the National Science Museum, Shinoda Ken-ichi, saying “to ensure scientific objectivity, the data should be published and further tests to confirm the results should be conducted by an independent institution” . In the International Herald Tribune on 2 June Norimitsu Onishi quoted three more Japanese experts, who agreed that it was “not possible” for the Japanese government to claim that the remains North Korea submitted were not Megumi’s. As one of them (Honda Katsuya, professor of forensic medicine at Tsukuba University) put it, “all we can conclude from the tests is that two people’s DNA were detected in the given material and that they did not agree with Megumi-san's. That's it. There is another huge step before we can conclude that they are not Megumi-san's bones” .
As for Yoshii Tomio, one week after the Nature editorial he was promoted to the prestigious position of head of the forensic medical department of the Tokyo metropolitan police department. Nature subsequently reported that it had been told Yoshii was therefore not available for media comment . When the suggestion arose in the Diet that this smacked of government complicity in "hiding a witness," the Minister of Foreign Affairs responded that it was "extremely regrettable" for such aspersions to be cast on Japan's scientific integrity .
The response of the abductee families to the DNA controversy has followed the government line. The Yokotas seem to have decided to ignore the unsatisfactory nature of Japan’s DNA test process and North Korea’s complaints. They have also, so far, ruled out other possible actions, such as going to North Korea themselves to visit their granddaughter and directly pressuring the North Korean authorities to conduct a more sincere investigation until they get satisfactory answers .
As time passed, other irregularities in the Tokyo story emerged. While Yoshii, and, apparently, others of his team were silenced, his senior colleague Ishiyama Ikuo wrote in the June issue of the medical journal Microscopia that the authorities must have reached the conclusion they did about the remains based on “other information” than Yoshii’s report, since that analysis could only establish that her DNA was not present in the sample. If indeed the conclusion that the remains were not Megumi’s rested on evidence other than the DNA analysis, the Japanese government has yet to explain what other evidence it used to substantiate its conclusions.
In Pyongyang on March 31, 2005, Mr. Song Il Ho, Deputy Director of the Asian Department of North Korean Foreign Ministry, a key person in Japan-DPRK negotiations, met with a Japanese delegation in Pyongyang. He criticized the Japanese government’s lack of sincerity, noting that Japan tried to distinguish colonial rule and abduction, both phenomena of the twentieth century divided by only twenty-five or so years, as if one were a past and the other a present issue. He expressed his government’s grave concern that North Korea had carried out what he described as “exhaustive” investigation into the abductions, producing 16 witnesses for the Japanese to interview in Pyongyang in November 2004, and even handed over the remains of Megumi, only to be rebuffed and insulted by the Japanese. As if taking a leaf from Yoshii’s textbook on DNA procedure, he suggested that the remains could be submitted to a third country institution for independent verification. He concluded, “We can live without Japan. Koizumi has done what needed to be done, but he has been blocked by opposition forces” .
While the stalemate over the abductions continued, the crisis over security and nuclear issues sharpened. In 1994, a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea was only resolved on the very brink of war by the mission of Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang. Under the subsequent “Agreed Framework,” North Korea froze its energy-related nuclear programs and placed its plutonium waste under international supervision in return for the promise of construction of two light–water nuclear reactors, a supply of heavy oil in the interim until they could be constructed, and normalization of economic and political relations.
The Agreed Framework held for almost a decade. During it, Japan’s security concerns focused especially on North Korea’s missiles. Perhaps no single incident so concentrated attention on North Korea as the launch of the Taepodong that soared over Japanese skies and then dropped into the Pacific Ocean late in August 1998. The thought that much of Japan might lie within North Korea’s missile range helped galvanize a rethinking of security issues. From the late 1990s, reflecting its deep fear of North Korea, Japan has devoted extraordinary effort to preparing the institutional framework for an “emergency,” which is the preferred euphemism for war: the “New Guidelines” agreement of 1997, followed by the 1999 Regional Contingency Law, the “Terror” and Iraq Special Measures Laws of 2001-2003, and the Emergency Laws of 2004.
Although North Korea served as a major impetus for this change in Japan’s strategic and military thinking, the two countries cannot be compared in terms of conventional military forces or extent of state power. Despite its nominal constitutional pacifism, Japan’s annual military expenditure is twice North Korea’s Gross Domestic Product, and its GDP is roughly two hundred times greater. True, North Korea has a 1.1 million strong army, worthy – in sheer numbers - of a superpower. However, exercises or maneuvers are rarely reported. Many units spend their time foraging and farming for subsistence, and equipment is mostly 1950s vintage (the Iraq War of March 2003 showed the futility of even 1970s military equipment in contemporary conditions). Shortage of fuel is so severe that pilots can only practice flying their planes for a few hours per year. Japan for its part has an army bigger than either the British or French, the 5th largest navy in the world (after the United States, Russia, China and the United Kingdom), and the twelfth largest air force in the world, larger than Israel's. It has 200 F15 fighters, 16 submarines (and builds one new one each year), four Aegis destroyers (and two more on order); and budgeted in 2004 for two 13,500-ton aircraft carriers (coyly described as “helicopter carriers”). Behind Japan stands the military colossus of the United States. Moreover, Japan launched two reconnaissance satellites in March 2003 to spy on North Korea. Were North Korea to launch spy satellites into the skies above Tokyo or Osaka, a Japanese preemptive strike to get rid of them would no doubt follow quickly.
A Japanese F15 fighter
While this upgrading of Japanese military capabilities was underway, suspicions over the North Korean nuclear program flared into a new crisis. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly returned from a visit to Pyongyang in October 2002 saying that Pyongyang had confessed to him that it had a secret uranium enrichment weapons program. The United States then suspended the supply of heavy oil under the Agreed Framework and in January 2003, North Korea responded by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and resuming its nuclear plans. Faced with this new stage of the crisis, the countries in the region began a series of meetings in Beijing in August 2003 that became known as the Six-Party Talks that included the United States, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, and North Korea. Japan was naturally involved as a major participant, but was hamstrung by the fact that popular anger about abduction continued to weigh heavily on its policy. Despite its best efforts, it was unable to persuade other participating countries to include the abduction issue on the agenda of the talks.
On February 10, 2005 the North Korean Foreign Ministry declared that it possessed and would expand its nuclear arsenal . Possession of such an arsenal, let alone its deliberate expansion, would clearly violate the 1992 South-North Declaration on Nuclear Disarmament and the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework, and, in spirit at least, the Pyongyang Declaration, in which Japan and North Korea had committed themselves to resolve nuclear issues by complying with all relevant international agreements and by dialogue. Yet with normalization talks between the two countries suspended because of the abduction issue, Japan had no direct channels through which to protest or pursue the issue.
While Japan has long enjoyed the protection of the US umbrella, North Korea had faced the threat of nuclear weapons aimed explicitly at it ever since the Korean War, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union from 1991 it lost the protection of the Soviet nuclear umbrella. Despite this, however, regional security can never be advanced by North Korea arming itself with nuclear weapons. That would only increase the risk of war. From August 2003, therefore, the regional countries came together in the Six Party Talks in an effort to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Even though Japan is both a nuclear victim and a declared non-nuclear state, it seems to be unable to contribute to the process of having North Korea give up its nuclear weapons plans.
With negotiations stalled over the abductions, Japan has no way to make its voice heard by North Korea. Some, including influential figures in the national Diet, demand economic sanctions against North Korea in order to bring pressure to bear toward resolving the abduction problem, but specialists believe that sanctions can only be effective if applied multilaterally, and therefore should be reserved as an absolute last resort for the nuclear issue. Furthermore, specialists on the North Korean economy point out that economic sanctions are unlikely to be effective because Japan’s trade and economic relations with North Korea have already shrunk drastically . Bilateral trade fell from approximately 120 billion yen in 1980 to a mere 27 billion yen in 2004. Despite the clamor for sanctions, Japan no longer has the effective means for exerting economic pressure on North Korea.
Pyongyang made clear, in high-level South-North exchanges in June 2005, that if only the United States would treat it in a friendly manner, recognizing and respecting it, it would be ready to return to the conference table and would not need to “have a single nuclear weapon”. The Six-Party Talks duly resumed in July. By the time of the three-week recess early in August, both the United States and North Korea seemed to have modified their positions, and there was some prospect of an agreement. Still considerable time and effort is likely to be needed to resolve the issues. A Japanese contribution to that process is crucial, and since North Korea’s nuclear weapons are mainly directed at U.S. bases in Japan a resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem can even be described as a mater of life and death for Japan.
With negotiations over the abductions completely frozen, Japan was open to the criticism that it was simply stalling. Most likely, it can only begin to exert influence on North Korea when it makes clear that a nuclear disarmament pledge will open diplomatic relations and economic cooperation. For this purpose Japan needs a new strategy for tackling the abduction problem.
Negotiations between Japan and South Korea over normalization lasted 13 years, ending in February 1965. Talks with North Korea began in January 1991 and have continued for 14 years. In early 21st century Japan, public anger over crimes committed against it has triumphed over reason, while injured virtue has overwhelmed diplomacy. Politicians and media figures have lost the capacity to imagine how the world might look from a North Korean perspective or to grasp the core of aggrieved justice that lies at the heart of Pyongyang’s message. This failure of imagination seems now to affect Japan’s relations with China and South Korea as well as North Korea and raises deeper questions about the matrix in which it is embedded.
Japanese politicians and critics tend to make a large fuss over the possible Japanese payment in compensation – now disguised as “economic cooperation” – for the 45 years of colonial rule over Korea. The highest estimate of this sum is about 1.5 trillion yen (roughly $12 billion). This is substantial to be sure but far less than what the Japanese taxpayers have recently forked over to rescue just one of Japan’s many floundering banks and trivial by comparison with, for example, the sums spent in recent years to keep the dollar up and the yen down in global currency markets. North Korea has been experimenting for over a decade with various efforts to get its economy going again by adopting market-based reforms, and even The Economist now thinks that these shifts are probably irreversible . But economic reform is not really possible under conditions of continuing sanctions and lack of capital. A significant Japanese capital transfer could help the country’s reconstruction efforts, as the sum of $500 million did for South Korea in 1965.
Prime Minister Koizumi faces a rising wave of pressure to denounce and impose sanctions on North Korea. For three days in late June 2005, his critics from the Families and Rescue Associations engaged in a highly publicized “sit-in” outside his office to demand sanctions, yet Koizumi refused even to meet them.
Koizumi is a puzzling and paradoxical politician. His regular annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine outrage neighboring Asian nations, especially China, and his cooperation in the military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests total commitment to the United States. Yet he has adopted normalization of relations with North Korea as his personal political mission. By twice visiting Pyongyang he plainly distanced himself from both domestic pressure for sanctions and Washington’s view of North Korea as beyond the pale and impossible to deal with. Janus-like, he is torn between a loyalty to the United States forged in the past and a future dream of a central role for Japan in a revived Asia. He also finds himself caught between conservative and neo-conservative elements in Japan itself.
In September 2002 and again in May 2004, glimpses of a radically different East Asia – of reconciliation, normalization, and cooperation – could be seen in Koizumi’s initiatives. Whether by instinct or calculation, he seems to grasp that Japan faces foreign policy choices in the early 21st century that it failed to grasp in the 19th and 20th centuries: how to accomplish a peaceful, cooperative, equal relationship with its neighbor states on the Korean peninsula and throughout Northeast Asia. Delivering his formal policy speech to the opening session of the Diet on January 20, 2005, Koizumi declared his commitment “to play a positive role in the construction of an open ‘East Asian Community’ sharing an economic prosperity that embraces diversity,” an echo of his earlier pledge to contribute to “the creation of an East Asian region.” His statement also called to mind the language on Northeast Asian regional cooperation in the Pyongyang Declaration that he issued jointly with Kim Jong Il in September 2002. It is extremely significant that 60 years after the collapse of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and its ideology, the Japanese Prime Minister should thus speak of a new regionalism. The transition from “Northeast Asian” regional cooperation and a framework for confidence building to “the construction of an East Asian community” is a measure of how history moved forward between September 2002 and January 2005. Now there is likely no other way forward for Japan.
How sad, then, and how maddening is Koizumi’s stubborn insistence on his Yasukuni rituals and his inability to resolve the abduction issue. Both combine to block Japan-North Korea negotiations and to divide Japan from even its partner countries in the Beijing process, South Korea and China. The sentiments of the families of the abductees are easily understood. At the same time, the Kim Jong Il regime has admitted and apologized for the abductions, returned to Japan the five survivors and their families, and reported after two investigations that the other abductees are dead and their possessions and remains have not survived. However unsatisfactory these explanations, the only alternative is to accept North Korea’s findings for the time being and resume the negotiations in a sincere fashion. To reject the outcome of North Korea’s two investigations is to refuse to negotiate with the Kim Jong Il regime, and Japan cannot afford to do that. After changing its negotiating approach, Japan must then pursue negotiations on the abduction issue tenaciously. Japan’s concerns are more likely to be met through the resumption of dialogue and the building of an East Asian community of peace, stability, and trust than by pressure aimed at bringing down the North Korean regime.
To normalize relations with North Korea, Japan must draw up a balance sheet of the pain and suffering caused by its colonial control over Korea and its support for the United States in the Korean War. Second, normalization of relations will require that North Korea put an end to the irregular and hostile relations of the past half century, admit the illegal acts committed during this period, promise not to commit such acts in the future, and make appropriate compensation. Third, the military tension between the two countries must be reduced. The development and deployment by either side of weapons threatening the security of the other will have to stop. Fourth, both countries will need jointly to strive to contribute to regional and global harmony.
There is a further dimension. Japan must undergo a kind of internal normalization. During the modernization of the 19th century, Japan constructed a national identity as “non-Asian.” To this day, Japanese society retains a deep vein of anti-Asianism, which persists in its most concentrated form in government, media, and popular thinking about North Korea. There are 870,000 Korean residents in Japan, or Zainichi, almost all originating from the southern provinces of Korea. Because of the vagaries of history since the collapse of the Japanese empire in 1945, 400,000 now have South Korean citizenship, 240,000 North Korean citizenship and 230,000 Japanese citizenship. Another 100,000 “returned” to North Korea in the decade after 1958. Those Korean residents in Japan affiliated with North Korea are cut off from their ancestral graves and from their families in South Korea. North Korean-oriented organizations and individuals suffer periodic intimidation and censure. Prominent figures in government, bureaucracy, media, and academia involved in the attempt to achieve normalization face virulent denunciation. One in five children attending North Korea-affiliated schools in Japan report various forms of abuse, from verbal to physical attack, their clothes sometimes slashed with cutters while on the subway or on the street . These internal divisions within Japanese society are only likely to be healed when the country comes to terms with its still unknown neighbor across the sea.
Any improvement in North Korea-Japan relations will require some change in the U.S. position. As the diplomatic stalemate surrounding North Korea deepened in 2005, the U.S. government issued contradictory signals. On the one hand, it recognized North Korea as a “sovereign state,” insisted it had no plans to attack it, and demanded that North Korea return unconditionally to the Beijing conference table. On the other hand, Washington seemed determined not only to drive Pyongyang into a corner but also to run roughshod over the objections of its Beijing conference partner countries. The Bush administration called Kim Jong Il a “tyrant” and a “dangerous person” and denigrated his country as an “outpost of tyranny”. Although President Bush could afford only 45 minutes for a frosty meeting with South Korean president Roh in June, he made himself available a few days later for almost the same amount of time to a prominent refugee from North Korea, Kang Chol Hwan, in order to share with him the notion that North Korean violations of human rights were the key issue and to suggest that regime change was his true objective . North Korea’s objection that “showing up at the talks just because the party that completely negates us and is trying to overthrow us is telling us to come is something that only a fool would do” was not altogether unreasonable.
Neutralization of the North Korean nuclear weapons program through a comprehensive program of normalization of diplomatic, political, and economic relations with the Kim Jong Il regime is the shared diplomatic objective of three of the Beijing conference countries: South Korea, China, and Russia. Until the July 2005 meetings in Beijing, however, Washington seemed to be committed to the goal of “democratization” and “human rights.” Japan’s position therefore was crucial. At some point in the near future, it will have to decide where it stands. Although Prime Minister Koizumi’s term of office was slated to run until September 2006, he gambled his political fortunes in the summer of 2005 on dissolving the lower house and conducting elections in September. This election will amount to a vote of confidence in his leadership. If this gamble is successful in gaining him the people’s confidence, will Koizumi then take steps to achieve his political goal of opening relations between Japan and North Korea? Only time will tell.
This is a slightly expanded and revised version of a text written for the volume edited by John Feffer, The Future of U.S.-Korean Relations, for publication by Routledge late in 2005. Gavan McCormack is professor of Australian National University and (2003-2005) visiting professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, and a coordinator of Japan Focus. He is the author of Target North Korea - Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, New York and Sydney, Nation Books and Random House Australia, 2004 and of other essays on North Korea and Japan-North Korea relations. Wada Haruki is Emeritus Professor of Tokyo University and author, inter alia, of Kin Nissei to Manshu Konichi Senso (Kim Il Sung and the Manchurian Anti-Japanese War, 1993), Chosen Senso zenshi (A Complete History of the Korean War, 2002), Kita Chosen – Yugekitai kokka no genzai (North Korea –Partisan State Today, 1998), Chosen yuji o nozomu no ka (Do we Want a Korean Emergency? 2002) and Dojidai hihan – Nicho kankei to rachi mondai (Critique of Our Own Times – Japan-North Korea Relations and the Abduction Problem, 2005). Posted at Japan Focus September 2, 2005.
Korean translation available on the web at "Pressian": http://www.pressian.com/
 This item was never part of the official government-to-government negotiations.
 Japanese authorities came to suspect that this was Taguchi Yaeko, who had disappeared from Japan in June 1978 and was said by Pyongyang to have died in a traffic accident in July 1986.
 Sato Katsumi, Rachi kazoku ‘Kin Shojitsu to no arasoi’ zenkyuseki, Shogakukan bunko, 2002, quoted in ibid, p. 95.
4] A fourth organization devoted to improving relations with North Korea formed after a parliamentary delegation to North Korea led by former Prime Minister Murayama. The “National Association for the Normalization of Japan-North Korea Relations” took the view that Japan had a responsibility to apologize and atone for its colonial rule and that the various problems in the relationship were the product of a deeply rooted abnormality that could only be resolved through normalization. With Murayama as president and Wada Haruki as Secretary-General, this group included former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Akashi Yasushi and well-known academics specializing in the study of Korea, Okonogi Masao and Komaki Teruo. Through the turbulent years that followed, it remained a focus of moderate opinion contrasting with the more strident and public “Rescue” and “Families” associations.
 For a comprehensive list of North Korea-related books published since 1984: Wada Haruki and Takasaki Shuji, eds., Kita Chosen hon do yomu ka, Akashi shoten, 2003, pp. 198-233.
 Ota Osamu, “Hi-seiji teki tetsugakusha o yosou daibutsu bomeisha,” Wada and Takasaki, eds., pp. 80-91, at p. 91.
 “Kin soshoki wa atama no tenkai hayai hito,” Asahi shimbun, 28 May 2004.
 “Rokusha kyogi – Beikoku mo ugoku toki da,” Asahi shimbun, editorial, 22 June 2004.
 For the Japanese government’s statement of 24 December, Nicho kankei to rokusha kyogi, pp. 66-69.
 Ibid., p. 46.
 Japanese officials, shown the tree in November 2004, estimated that its trunk was a mere 10 centimeters in diameter, a circumstance that deepened their doubt about the suicide story. (“Rachi higaisha seizon no kanosei,” Asahi shimbun, 3 April 2005.)
 Nanzando, 1999. See discussion in Wada, Nicho kankei to rokusha kyogi, pp. 43-4.
 “Politics versus reality,” Nature, vol. 434, 17 March 2005, pp. 257.
 “Megumi-san ‘ikotsu’ de ronso,” Asahi shimbun, 10 May 2005.
 Norimitsu Onishi, “Asia Letter: About a kidnap victim, DNA testing, and doubt,” International Herald Tribune, 2 June 2005.
 David Cyranoski, “Geneticist’s new post could stop him testifying about DNA tests,” Nature, Vol. 437, 7 April 2005, p. 685.
 Machimura, in response to a question in House of Representatives, 30 March 2005.
 As proposed by this author (Wada), Dojidai hihyo -- 2002 nen 9-gatsu -- 2005 nen 1-gatsu, Nicho kankei to rachi mondai, Sairyusha, 2005, p. 48.
 The delegation included Wada Haruki. See the Song Il Ho interview (with Wada et al) in Nicho kankei to rokusha kyogi, pp.101-105.
 The expression which was used by Mr. Pak Hyon Zhe, Deputy Director of Institute of Peace and Disarmament, in meeting with this author (Wada) and others on 30 March 2005.
 For example, Professor Komaki Teruo of Kokugakuin University. See Nicho kankei to rokusha kyogi, pp. 51-55.
 Asahi shimbun, 22 June 2005.
 “Free market stirrings in North Korea, “ The Economist, 25 July 2002.
 Fujita Yutaka, “Zainichi Korian no kodomotachi ni taisuru iyaragase jittai cho¯sa,” Sekai, October 2003, pp. 248-254.
 Various statements by President Bush, Secretary of State Rice, and Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, January to May 2005.
 Gavan McCormack, “A North Korean visitor to the White House,” Japan Focus, 17 July 2005, http://japanfocus.org/article.asp?id=335.
 North Korean Foreign Ministry “Memorandum on 6-Party Talks,” 4 March 2005.
We welcome your comments on this and all other articles. More are available on our homepage. Please consider subscribing to our email newsletter or RSS feed, or following us via Twitter or Facebook.