14.04.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Dialog between Pyongyang and Tokyo? Another failure!

Dialog between Pyongyang and Tokyo?

Japan and North Korea do not currently have any diplomatic relations, but Tokyo periodically tries to gain political capital by attempting to establish a dialog with Pyongyang. The most successful such attempt occurred in 2002, when, in a meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, DPRK leader Kim Jong Il admitted that 13 Japanese citizens had been abducted by North Korea’s intelligence services. Five of them were allowed to return, while the fate of the other eight is unresolved – and this issue is known as the “abductee issue”. North Korea claims that these people are dead, while the Japanese public are certain that they are alive and being held in inhumane conditions. That said, neither side has offered sufficient evidence to convince the other of the truth of its claims. As a result, the DPRK considers that this issue has been resolved, and any attempt by Tokyo to revive it elicits an aggressive response, with the DPRK “slamming the door” on all talks, regardless of any earlier points of agreement between the two countries on other fronts. Specifically, the attempt to raise this issue at the Six-Party Talks on the DPRK nuclear issue contributed a lot to the termination of those talks.

Nevertheless, Tokyo regularly attempts to establish dialog with Pyongyang – but these initiatives are primarily aimed at a domestic political audience. They typically proceed along the following lines: Tokyo says that it wants to be friends, and Pyongyang says that it has no objections, but insists that the abductee issue should not be raised. Tokyo nevertheless raises this issue, and Pyongyang “slams the door”. Frankly speaking, this pattern reminds the author of Japan’s conduct in relation to the Northern Territories issue, which Moscow does not consider to be a problem. The Kurils belong to the Russian Federation and Japan does not dispute this, but this does not prevent right-wing Japanese politicians from periodically raising this topic, with no result, other than harsh words from Moscow.

The outcome of the largely similar political “dances” between Pyongyang and Tokyo in 2023-24 is best viewed from this angle.

On May 27, 2023 the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, speaking at a rally calling for the return of abducted Japanese, said he was ready to meet with Kim Jong-un to discuss the issue. He announced that officials from Tokyo and Pyongyang would soon hold consultations to organize a summit.

On May 29, 2023, Park Soo-gil, North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister issued a press statement. He noted that Pyongyang’s was awareness of Japan’s desire “to hold talks with the DPRK without preconditions,” adding that he had “no idea at all what benefit it really seeks to attain through such talks.” After all, the issue of the abductees has already been resolved, and if Tokyo is “trying to achieve an unrealizable goal, this will be a mistake and a waste of time.” If Tokyo is not constrained by the past (i.e. if it is ready to change its position on the abductee issue) the “DPRK and Japan have no reason not to hold a meeting.”

Following the press release, published by the KCNA, Fumio Kishida confirmed to reporters that he was willing to engage with North Korea, and emphasized that he himself was determined to face the abductee issue head-on and make concrete progress. At a press conference Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno refrained from commenting, citing concerns about the possible impact of any comments on future talks.

On January 5, 2024. Kim Jong-un sent a telegram of condolence to the Japanese leadership on the devastating Noto earthquake of January 1: “I express my sincere sympathy and condolences to you and, through you, to the families of those who have been killed and to those who have been injured.”  Many noted that this development was unexpected.

In February 2024, during a speech to the National Diet, Fumio Kishida reiterated the need for talks with Kim Jong-un in order to resolve various problems in Japan’s relations with Pyongyang, including the development of the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programs and the abduction of Japanese citizens.  Kishida said the situation is becoming more serious because of the nuclear threat from Russia and the DPRK’s development of nuclear and missile technology.

On February 15, the DPRK responded in the form of a statement by Kim Yo-jong, “first Sister” and Deputy Department Director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea: “I believe that if this statement by Prime Minister Kishida comes from a sincere intention to throw off the yoke of the past and promote Korean-Japanese relations, then there is no reason not to view it positively”. However, in Kim Yo-jong’s personal opinion, “so far, our leadership has no plans for improving Korean-Japanese relations and is not interested in contact.”

In response, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi indicated that Kim Yo-jong’s remarks were noted and that the visit was being discussed, but “Japan will not accept the North’s claim that the abductee iisue has been resolved”.

Readers may ask “What about Washington”? On February 15 a US State Department spokesman stated that Washington has always advocated dialog with North Korea. The US has shown relative restraint given that contacts between Tokyo and Pyongyang could weaken trilateral cooperation between the South Korea, the US and Japan. At the same time, Washington understands the importance of reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the case of dialogue between Pyongyang and Tokyo. On the same day, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Senior Director for East Asia and Oceania at the White House National Security Council, speaking at the Indo-Pacific Strategy Seminar, said the US supports its allies’ engagement on North Korean issues.

Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh has also noted that Washington would welcome talks between Japan and the DPRK if their engagement leads to stability in the region.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the “hypothetical question” of a possible the Kishida-Kim summit, but added that the ministry is “in close communication with its Japanese counterparts on contacts between Tokyo and Pyongyang” and “the contacts should contribute to North Korea’s denuclearization, and to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

But more interesting was the reaction of conservative experts in South Korea: In brief, they see Pyongyang’s demonstration of willingness to enter into dialog as perceived as an attempt to influence the trilateral security ties between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo: the visit, even if it takes place, is unlikely to bring fundamental changes in relations between North Korea and Japan. According to Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, “Kim Yo-jong’s statement seems to be a reaction to South Korea’s diplomatic ties with Cuba and at the same time a strategy to plant concerns that the North Korea-Japan summit may crack the current security cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.”

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies, also said Kim Yo-jong’s statement is an attempt by North Korea to urge Japan to take a more active stance in their working-level talks, but it remains difficult for Kishida to accept the difficult conditions set by Pyongyang, namely “not mentioning the abductee issue and the nuclear program”.

Among the commentators in South Korea there were both optimists and pessimists. Nam Chang-hee, professor of international relations at Ewha University goes so far as to point out that Japan could leverage its potential compensation to the North for its colonial-era occupation rather than focusing on the regime’s military adventurism [i.e. the North’s nuclear weapons program], in order to help ease evolving North Korean nuclear threats and promote stability on the Korean Peninsula.  In this way (although the present author wonders how much Japan would have to pay for its acts in the past), Tokyo could contribute to solving the North’s nuclear problem, and Kim Jong-un could solve the country’s economic problems.

On the other hand, Frank Aum, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, points out that “Japan is unwilling to deviate much from the US position on denuclearization and ballistic missiles. Also, remember, North Korea said that it does not want to talk about denuclearization, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s Washington or Tokyo that is the interlocutor”. The only area for discussion between Japan and North Korea is the abductee issue, but Pyongyang is unlikely to want to discuss this.

The conservative newspaper The Korea Times, which nevertheless opposes Yoon’s government, has published an opinion piece entitled “North Korea-Japan summit looms. Seoul needs Plan B to buffer any fallout from possible Kishida-Kim talks“. According to the author of the article, far from them being wishful thinking, both parties want to hold the talks and they are also supported by the US. Allegedly, Japan and the DPRK held informal meetings in a third country on two occasions, in March and May 2023, and Akira Amari, a confidant of Kishida, recently said that all the preparations are under way and that “the ball is now in the court of the two leaders.”

In terms of benefits, however, “Kim Jong-un has nothing to lose if the summit takes place and a lot more to gain”. A Japan-North Korea summit would allow Kim to gain much-needed financial incentives. It would also boost his pride as he will feel he is a highly sought-after leader.  In addition, the summit could help de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula by serving serve as a platform through which the US, South Korea or both can send their messages to the North.

Finally, we should note the position of the relatives of the Japanese citizens abducted by the DPRK, who have stated that they would not object to Japan lifting sanctions against the DPRK provided that Pyongyang immediately returns all those who remain in the country. If the victims are not repatriated, however, they will “demand tougher sanctions.”

There was no news for two weeks, and March 25 Kim Yo-jong issued a press release in which she revealed that “Prime Minister Kishida recently conveyed to us through another channel his desire to have a personal meeting with the Chairman of State Affairs of the DPRK at the earliest available time.” It is unclear what channel she was referring to, but she reiterated her position that “we don’t need a summit for the sake of a summit”.

“Mere readiness to host a summit cannot heal relations between the two countries, which are full of mistrust and misunderstanding – that is the lesson of the past history of Korean-Japanese relations.” If Japan uses the summit as an excuse to revive up the abductee issue, “it will be impossible to avoid the negative impression that the prime minister’s proposal is merely aimed at boosting his ratings.”

If Japan sincerely wants to improve relations between the countries and contribute to peace and stability in the region, this will require a “politically courageous decision to make a strategic choice that is in line with the overall benefits of the state,” as “strengthening the defense capability of the DPRK will in no way threaten Japan’s security.” Kim Yo-jong insisted that Tokyo’s desire for a summit will not, in itself, be enough.

Significantly, Kishida himself, in response to the above DPRK media report, stated that he had no knowledge about it. But in the second half of March 25, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi called Pyongyang’s statement that the abductees issue had been resolved “completely unacceptable,” and also referred to the nuclear missile issue.

A US State Department official, commenting on Kim’s remarks in an interview with KBS also said North Korea should fully address the issue of the Japanese citizens abducted by its intelligence services. The US supports the demands of the families of Japanese citizens abducted by the North, and Pyongyang should provide a clear explanation on the issue, the official said.

On March 26, Kim Yo-jong made another statement, couched in stronger language:. “Japan has no courage at all to take the first step toward a new North Korea-Japan relationship while changing history and promoting regional peace and stability,” she said, emphasizing that such relations must not be manipulated by Kishida. “This is confirmed by Japan’s stance that is immersed in irresolvable issues that have no solution and no longer need to be resolved,” and hence, “for us, the Korea-Japan summit is not a matter of interest.” South Korean media concluded that Pyongyang would ignore and reject any proposals for contact or talks by Tokyo.

South Korean experts believe that North Korea’s decision to abandon talks with Japan is linked to the two countries’ failure to reach an agreement on the agenda for a possible summit. After all, what would the two leaders talk about if the summit were to take place? The questions of concern to Tokyo, including the abductees issue, are guaranteed to shut down dialogue, and Pyongyang has few questions for Japan, as it realizes that in matters of strategic regional security, Tokyo does not make its own decisions. And neither side has any desire to devalue the summit by turning into an exchange of polite but meaningless platitudes. As Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, puts it, Kishida will not give up the issue easily because he is facing increasing public pressure ahead of the September election, but coming back from a summit empty-handed would hit him harder than not having a meeting at all. And Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Sejong Institute, notes that a truly “creative approach” by Japan is unlikely under its current leadership.

Other South Korean experts affiliated with the Democratic Party are beginning to argue that Tokyo has betrayed Seoul or is playing on its nerves by trying to mend relations with a country which South Korea considers an enemy. The purpose of such statements is to once again undermine Yoon Suk-yeol’s turn towards Japan, because, in the present author’s opinion, Tokyo has not made and will not make any real steps toward improving relations with Pyongyang. Anti-North Korean sentiment is very strong in Japan because the Japanese understand that in the event of a military conflict involving the DPRK all major logistical centers could can be used for troop movements to the Korean peninsula would be targeted by nuclear missiles that would cause irreparable collateral damage.

Tokyo’s statements about the possibility of resuming dialog with Pyongyang without preconditions are similar to those made by the US, except that while in the United States, in the event of Donald Trump winning the presidential election there is the small possibility of real contacts with North Korea, while in the case of Japan, in the current climate, the likelihood of such contacts is miniscule. Perhaps such conversations will be possible again in a couple of years – although they may end in the same way. Perhaps if Trump, as US President, were to hold another summit with Kim, Kishida or his successor might try to catch up with him, but here we enter the area of pure speculation and “Shahrazad broke off from what she had been allowed to say…”.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

Related articles: