U.S. urges Japan to rejoin coalition against N. Korea

When Japan’s ransom deal with North Korea threatened to fracture the regional coalition pressuring Pyongyang to end its nuclear programs, I was critical of the Obama Administration for failing to use its influence to prevent Japan’s defection. As leaks to the Japanese press have since confirmed, however, someone in the White House subsequently arrived a similar conclusion. Soon thereafter, the administration began some desperate behind-the-scenes diplomacy to press Japan to get back on the team:

A senior White House official said the multilateral sanctions imposed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program should not be sacrificed by Tokyo in exchange for greater cooperation by Pyongyang to resolve the abduction issue involving Japanese nationals.

The message was delivered by Ben Rhodes, a senior National Security staffer, on July 3rd. Under Japan’s deal with North Korea, Japan agreed to “ease restrictions on travel” and “allow port calls by some North Korean registered ships and money transfers” to North Korea, in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to “investigate” its abductions of Japanese.

Rhodes raised the possibility that the Abe administration’s deal with North Korea could adversely affect cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea in trying to prevent Pyongyang from pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities.

“I think it’s important, though, that they send a message that this is not going to ‘let North Korea off the hook’ for the nuclear issue,” he said. The deputy national security adviser said U.S. President Barack Obama is well aware of the Japanese position of wanting to resolve the abduction issue.

However, Rhodes indicated that Japan should not expand the range of sanctions it relaxes against North Korea, especially if they are related to measures based on U.N. Security Council resolutions that were issued in the wake of three underground nuclear tests by North Korea. “The overarching point is that the security threat posed to Japan and the region, and the world, for North Korea’s nuclear program and its missile program cannot be set aside if there is progress made on the abductee issue,” Rhodes said.

He said the three countries need to continue working together to apply pressure on North Korea regarding its nuclear program. “All of us in the six-party talks, and particularly the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea, I think, want to be very forthcoming with one another about how we’re looking at the nuclear issue,” Rhodes said. [Asahi Shimbun]

Things have now gone so far that John Kerry has been forced to plead with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discourage him from visiting North Korea.

In his telephone talks with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on July 7, Kerry requested that Japan hold behind-the-scenes consultations with the United States in advance should Tokyo consider a visit to North Korea by Abe, according to the sources.

The top U.S. diplomat also expressed displeasure over Japan’s policy of gradually lifting its unilateral sanctions on North Korea depending on progress in the new round of investigations into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s. [….]

Kerry, who spent most of his telephone talks with Kishida on the issue of sanctions on North Korea, asked Japan to be careful about additionally removing sanctions, according to the sources. [Mainichi Shimbun]

While it’s good news that the administration understands the critical importance of concerted pressure on North Korea, it may have waited too long to speak up. The abduction issue is an extremely emotional one for Japanese voters, and it probably eclipses North Korea’s nuclear threat in Japan’s national (and thus, political) consciousness. Japan can’t walk away from this deal now, but it can be prepared to walk away if (or rather, when) North Korea reneges.

Still, cooler heads in Japan understand, first, that North Korea has an extremely poor track record for keeping its agreements, and second, that the nuclear issue holds all Japanese hostage in a very real sense.

It is crucial that a concerted international approach to the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program and missiles be maintained, and that Japan share information with and gain the understanding of both the U.S. and South Korea toward a resolution on the abduction issue. The challenge has only just begun. [Editorial, Mainichi Shimbun]

I feel some sympathy for the Obama Administration, which inherited a bad situation from its predecessors. For years, the Clinton and Bush Administrations had included North Korea’s abductions of Japanese as a key reason for U.S. sanctions against North Korea — and particularly, of its listing of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Bush’s ill-advised 2007 deal with North Korea dropped those sanctions for a deal that North Korea began to break almost before the ink on its signature dried. This deal followed the most minimal of consultations with the Japanese government and nearly threw it into crisis. No wonder Japan feels no obligation to coordinate with the U.S. before cutting its own deal with Pyongyang.

But while the Bush Administration is responsible for setting up this prisoners’ dilemma, the Obama Administration had months of warning that Tokyo was interested in cutting a deal with Pyongyang. Indeed, despite overwhelming evidence of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism and the lack of progress on the abduction issue, it squandered numerous opportunities to restore North Korea to the list, and to make Pyongyang’s failure to return Japanese abductees a specific reason for that action.

That small gesture toward the interests of an important ally would have cemented the coalition against Pyongyang and shown Tokyo that sticking with the coalition was the best way to achieve its interests and get its abducted citizens back. It’s still not too late to make that gesture, and last week’s news provides more opportunities for the administration to make it.

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In another area, Japan shows signs of stepping back from a position that had disgusted its allies and delighted its enemies — its flirtations with denying its responsibility for the “comfort women” during World War II:

The Japanese government assured South Korea on Wednesday that it will uphold an official apology over frontline brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II for which mainly Asian women were procured.

Junichi Ihara, head of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, made the assurance in a meeting with Lee Sang Deok, head of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said. [Kyodo News]

Japan’s re-litigation of this issue is one of the most spectacularly ill-advised things I’ve seen in the ten years I’ve been writing here. It secured nothing of value for Japan’s interests, did serious damage to Japan’s standing in Washington, as Korean-American constituents mobilized their representatives to protest it, and disrupted a budding alliance with South Korea that could prove crucial to a common defense against Chinese aggression in the Pacific. I hope this means that on this issue, too, cooler heads have won the day.

For more background on the comfort women issue, see this op-ed by Sung Yoon Lee and Zachary Przystup, and this one by Dennis Halpin.

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