Gavan McCormack and Wada Haruki: The Strange Record of 15 Years of Japan-North Korea Negotiations

Roundup: Historians' Take

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.

The History

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 [1] 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 [2]. 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.

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