In the first year of his tenure, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s foreign policy has consisted of two themes; conveying to the world that “Japan is back” and asserting Japan’s territorial rights in the East China Sea to China. The latter has included the first increase in Japanese defence spending in a decade, the frank and sometimes blunt assessments of Chinese behavior near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and building closer military ties with countries in Southeast Asia. This includes not only countries similarly threatened by China, like the Philippines and Vietnam, but also those close to China including Cambodia and Myanmar.
In this context – combined with a domestic agenda that reportedly consumes 80 percent of Abe’s time – it is difficult to imagine that there are more dragons to slay in the foreign policy realm. Yet, analysts of the region may consider preparing for another bold move from Abe… on the issue of abduction.
Many Western followers of the newly confident Japan may be unfamiliar with the story of 17 Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The victims were abducted from coastal Japanese towns—such as Niigata and Soga island as well as from Europe—and forced to work for Pyongyang training its infiltration and espionage units to look, speak, and act Japanese. The victims’ families had no idea what had happened to their loved ones until the mid-1990s when a few enterprising journalists got wind of the rumour that some missing Japanese citizens may have been abducted by North Korean agents. Subsequently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il confessed to the abduction of 12 Japanese citizens when Prime Minister Koizumi Junchiro visited North Korea in 2002. In his greatest foreign policy coup, Koizumi was able to extract an apology from Kim and later secured the release of four abductees and their families.
However, for many Japanese – including Prime Minister Abe – the issue remains unresolved. North Korean explanations that the eight others it confessed to snatching died in North Korea were unconvincing as Japanese officials were unable to corroborate the circumstances of their deaths. Moreover, North Korea still denies abducting a further five Japanese citizens. The issue is very much alive in Japan, particularly among the ultra-conservative segment of the political spectrum. It’s not hard to see why: with the possible exception of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the abduction issue is the only outstanding issue Japan has with its neighbours in which it can play the victim.
Moreover, the issue is deeply significant to Prime Minister Abe. He first became aware of the issue before he entered politics while working as a secretary for his father. He was with Koizumi in North Korea when Kim confessed to state-sponsored kidnapping. During his first term as Prime Minister, Abe passed a law mandating the central and prefectural governments to spend money to raise Japanese and international awareness of the abduction issue through presentations, media, and by inviting foreigners to visit Japan to learn more about the issue (full disclosure: including this author). Moreover, Abe owes his political ascendance to the ultra-conservative segment of the Japanese political spectrum. In May 2013 he dispatched the Special Advisor to the Cabinet Isao Iijima to North Korea. Iijima represents the ultra-conservative wing of Japanese politics supporting Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and opposing American bases in Japan.
The dispatch of Iijima suggests that the Abe government is looking for a breakthrough on the abduction issue with North Korea. There are several reasons why this is pressing in the Japanese calculation. First, as a function of its nuclear test in early 2013, North Korea has been effectively isolated by the United States and South Korea. Furthermore, there are signs that China is less supportive of its communist vassal state than it used to be. North Korea’s desperation requires it to reach out to any party that will bargain with it. Secondly, Japan with Abe at the helm is a prospective bargaining partner. Japan alone among the members of the six party talks views North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as secondary to the abduction issue; a perspective that is supported by polling data. Third, the families of the abductees are getting old as are any surviving abductees – such as Yokota Megumi. Abducted less than a block from her house on her way home from badminton practice in 1978 at the age of 13, her parents are the youngest parents of any of the abductees still alive and are now in their late 70s and early 80s. Finally, from a North Korean perspective, surviving abductees or their children are likely only valuable as a bargaining chip if they are still alive.
These developments suggest an effort by Abe to reach out to North Korea to make progress on the abduction issue. In 2002, Koizumi scored a political victory by securing the release of four abductees. In 2014, especially given the deeply personal and political importance of the issue to Abe Shinzo, analysts should expect Japanese overtures to North Korea in exchange for any surviving abductee. The net result could be a foreign policy victory for Abe that will be widely celebrated in Japan and reinforce Abe’s patriotic foreign policy narrative. However, such a victory would also entail concessions to North Korea that could allow the Kim Jong-Un regime to muddle through the world’s most draconian sanctions regime a little bit longer.