The time for choosing approaches

North Korea has indicated that in order for the six-party talks to go forward, the US will have to remove North Korea from its list of state supporters of terrorism. That demand, of course, is aimed squarely at US-Japan cooperation on the abductions issue, because Japan is adamant that so long as North Korea fails to account for its abductions of Japanese citizens, it must continue to wear the scarlet letter of state sponsor of terrorism.

Given that the Japanese government has indicated that it will not compromise — no progress on abductions, then no cooperation in energy support — to advance the denuclearization talks, given that Prime Minister Abe has no room to maneuver on the abductions issue, the choice that must be made increasingly is the US government’s to make.

I’ve recently resolved that I’m going to read Abe’s book from start to finish, however interminably boring or weird it might be. One thing I have learned from this reading (I’m about halfway through) is that however important I thought the abductions issue was to him before, I underestimated. The abductions issue is central to understanding Abe Shinzo’s rise to power, and essential to understanding how he thinks of himself.

Talking about his efforts to raise awareness of the issue early in his career as a politician, he strikes a Churchillian note, talking about how even within the LDP there was little awareness of the issue. Abe and his coterie were but a small minority, crying out against the prevailing consensus on North Korea. But they persevered, and now they are in control of Japanese foreign policy. There will be no talk of aid to North Korea without resolution of this issue. This issue, which is insignificant to every country involved in the six-party talks except Japan, is the undisputed heart of this government’s view of the North Korea problem; missiles and nuclear weapons raise public awareness, but apparently the government considers resolving those problems secondary to the abductions problem.

If an actual agreement with North Korea is possibly — or more realistically, a status quo that will stabilize the Korean peninsula until the death of Kim Jong Il and the end of the DPRK — should the US balk on the basis of the Japanese position on abductions? It would be one thing if the Japanese government was holding back simply out of concern that Pyongyang’s word could not be taken in good faith and thus the six-party talks could not be expected to secure Japan. That’s an entirely reasonable position, and susceptible to change in the event that North Korea actually made good faith efforts to comply (however unlikely).

But Japan has put the US in the position of having to choose between pursuing an agreement on denuclearization, however chimerical, and “abandoning” its ally. This at the same time that Japan already feels betrayed by the US thanks to those — this phrase courtesy of an article in this month’s issue of Will — “anti-Japan fascists” in the US Congress and their comfort women resolution. So yes, Ambassador Kato, the alliance may be set to suffer, entirely from self-inflicted wounds that were foreseeable and preventable. But then, why would an ambassador want to try to foresee and prevent bilateral difficulties? I cannot say that I’m surprised by the overlap between the six-party talks and the comfort women resolution (I said as much here) — but that makes this whole fiasco that much more aggravating, because it was so eminently foreseeable.

The reality is that the alliance is not, in fact, under attack from a two-pronged offensive waged by Chris Hill and Mike Honda; rather, it is suffering, perhaps has always been suffering, from manic depression, swinging between ecstatic highs (“the best ever”) and mournful lows, because it has never been normalized, because Japan has been protected for so long by friends in Washington. Now those friends have retreated from power.

The reality is that the US is doing what it thinks is right in both cases. In a normal alliance, there would be no problem explaining that and having a discussion about how to coordinate interests or, if necessary, how exactly to agree to disagree. Instead at each possible moment when the US and Japan could have discussed this, the governments fell back on tired rhetoric about how strong the alliance is today. So the US must also bear some blame for this mess, not for the comfort women resolution, but for laziness in failing to ensure that Japan understands American needs in the six-party talks and in failing to prevent Tokyo from overreacting to the congressional resolution.

But Japan better wake up soon, because I have a pretty good idea of the choice the US is going to make if a deal emerges that Hill feels confident bringing back to Washington as a trophy. He was quoted in Asahi (article linked above) as saying, “If there’s denuclearization, anything is possible.”

One thought on “The time for choosing approaches

  1. Anonymous

    Although you have done a good job pf emphasizing the central position that the abduction issue plays in Abe\’s thinking, you have not really explained why this is so, since it is difficult for foreigners to understand why denuclearization is secondary to abduction in Japan. Japanese politics is hard enough for most people to grasp but on an issue as central to Japanese security as denuclearization, it comes across as not just a surprise but rather a distortion in thinking that would put an issue like abduction above denuclearization.


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