Abductions Japan

The Japan-North Korea deal will self-destruct in 3, 2, 1 ….

It could have been predicted from the moment of its revelation — and was — that Pyongyang would renege on its ransom deal with Tokyo. And so, as surely as the sun rises, Pyongyang has reinterpreted its “reinvestigation” of its abductions of Japanese so as to reveal approximately nothing, slowly. Tokyo says it will reject Pyongyang’s report:

Pyongyang said the report would include only information on missing persons who are not on Tokyo’s official list, which totals 17 Japanese. Instead, the North’s report will only cover cases of Japanese suspected of having been abducted by North Korea but not officially designated as such, of Japanese left behind in North Korea amid the chaos of the end of World War II, and of Japanese spouses of North Koreans who returned to their native country, the source said. [Japan Times]

I’ll go out on a limb here: North Korea’s “investigation” of these cases will clear North Korea of all responsibility.

Pyongyang has told Tokyo it is still investigating the fates of the 12 officially listed as having been abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. But the Japanese government replied that, as it places the highest value on that group, it will not accept the report unless it includes new information on their fates. The other five designated abductees were repatriated in 2002. [Japan Times]

Bloomberg adds that Pyongyang may stall the release of information about the 12 for another year, further angering their families. One of the 12 is Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped when she was just 13 years old. Yokota personifies the abduction issue in a way that resounds deeply with the Japanese people.

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[At an event I attended at the Japanese Embassy last year, workers passed out copies of this Megumi Yokota manga, which was published and translated by the Japanese government.]

Pyongyang says that Yokota committed suicide in 1994 and sent “her” bones to Japan in 2005, but a DNA test proved that the bones weren’t hers. Japan was outraged by the revelation.

Tokyo believes the half-baked proposal by Pyongyang shows it aims to offer information in small increments, each time trying to elicit as many economic benefits as possible from Japan in exchange. During past negotiations, North Korea asked Japan to ease unilateral economic sanctions and sought humanitarian support, such as food, and Pyongyang may have made a similar request during the latest talks, the source said. [Japan Times]

In other words, the Japanese think the North Koreans are milking them. Pyongyang wants to maintain the relaxation of sanctions for as long as possible, and probably demand more, in exchange for revealing as little as possible and as slowly as possible, and setting no one free. If only they had first solicited the advice of someone who knows from bitter experience:

“I lived in North Korea long enough to know how things work,” Ueda said. “They want money from Japan — that’s why they’re negotiating — but if the government gives them the money upfront, they won’t get anyone back.” [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

One apparent problem with this deal is its vagueness, which allowed the two sides to walk away from the table with a deal, but also with two different understandings of what the deal was. This is the same problem that vexed American diplomats who negotiated, and then tried to enforce, the Leap Day Deal (Where does it say we can’t test missiles?), the 2005 joint statement (You have to build us a reactor first!), and 2007 agreed framework (Where does it say anything about uranium? Which we absolutely, positively aren’t enriching?). Pyongyang’s interlocutors keep their agreements vague so that they can clinch their deals. Most international agreements are vague, compared to, say, legislation, or the settlement agreements that lawyers write. Inevitably, Pyongyang exploits that vagueness.

Just as a diplomatic experiment, I wonder what would happen if Japan told North Korea that it had a week to come clean on just the 12, or face the reimposition and expansion of sanctions.

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A greater obstacle to this deal is Pyongyang’s irredeemable lack of credibility. The Japan Times cites estimates by abductee advocates that North Korea is “highly likely” to have been behind 77 disappearances of Japanese citizens, and may have been involved up to 470 disappearances in all. If that sounds like a wild exaggeration, Japan’s National Police Agency “believes North Korea may have been involved in the disappearance of about 880 Japanese nationals.” Yet Pyongyang already seems ready to clear itself in some of these cases.

Given how pathologically North Korea has lied to Japan before, how can the victims’ families, or those who represent them in government, ever believe them? The North Koreans will probably never reveal the full extent of their kidnappings, but what if they did? They could admit to kidnapping another dozen more people, or a couple hundred more. It still wouldn’t matter, because mankind has never built a structure that can suspend so much disbelief. Only a fool would believe Pyongyang’s pinkie-swear that there were no others, even if it had nothing to do with most of those 880 disappearances. Pyongyang finds itself trapped by its own lies, incapable of convincing Japan that it’s telling the truth.

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The collapse of this deal will certainly provoke another outraged reaction in Japan, and in due course, a hardening of Japan’s policies. You need only recall how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted to North Korea’s lies in 2004:

“If we give North Korea one more chance and it fails to respond by the deadlines, we need to strongly urge the government to immediately exercise economic sanctions on North Korea,” Shinzo Abe, acting secretary general of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, said Sunday. [N.Y. Times, Dec. 14, 2004]

In 2005, the Japanese government responded with new sanctions, and by taxing Chongryeon, North Korea’s front organization in Japan, to near-extinction. Last week, Abe called the abduction issue “the top priority of [his] administration,” adding, “My mission will not be over until the day all of the abduction victims have been returned to their families.” Having invested himself in this issue, Abe can’t easily forgive North Korean backsliding.

“I understand they may begin to have misgivings,” Abe said of the victims’ families in a speech on Sept. 19 in Tokyo. “It’s unfortunately true to say this is taking time and trouble.” [….]

“The abduction problem was the first issue he took up as a politician and it’s what made his name in national politics,” said Yoshiyuki Inoue, an upper house lawmaker for Your Party who served as secretary to Abe before and during his 2006-2007 administration. [Bloomberg]

Pyongyang’s interest in a deal proves that sanctions influenced Pyongyang’s decision-making. But unless sanctions are coordinated with other nations that have coercive power over Pyongyang, not one of those nations will get what it wants. America’s allies, which are incapable of working things out between themselves, need America’s help to coordinate sanctions policy. Under the best of circumstances, that’s like gathering a basket of ants. But an America that itself seems visionless can offer no plausible outcomes to induce its allies to cooperate. Until the White House articulates such a vision, Pyongyang will continue to blunt international pressure by making separate appeals to the individual interests of governments, and to the various profiteers, politicians, and hucksters who can influence them.

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This post was edited after publication.