Machimura Nobutaka, chief cabinet secretary, announced Friday that in talks in Beijing, North Korea agreed to “reinvestigate” the case of Japanese abductees in North Korea and promised to transfer the remaining Yodo hijackers and their families to Japanese custody.
After months of ambiguity as to what exactly constitutes “progress” on the abductions issue, it seems that the Fukuda government is finally sharing with the world — in response to talks, the Japanese government announced that it would lift some of the sanctions imposed after North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006. North Korean ships will be allowed back in Japanese ports to pick up humanitarian relief supplies. Restrictions on charter flights will be lifted, and people will be permitted to travel between Japan and North Korea again.
This means, of course, that the Fukuda government is about to face howls of protest from the right. Members of the abductee families association greeted the announcement with “anger and dissatisfaction,” dismissing the idea that this agreement might constitute a (small) sign of progress. If the families are displeased, then their LDP allies will undoubtedly share their displeasure. As this agreement sinks in, expect a wave of criticism claiming that Mr. Fukuda is “betraying” Japan (as asserted in this post at Pride of Japan, a blog maintained by conservative local elected officials).
Even would-be defenders of the move are skeptical. Yamamoto Ichita, a member of the association to promote the prudent advance of North Korean diplomacy, a Diet members’ league that has called for an approach to North Korea that uses both pressure and negotiation with North Korea (as opposed to just pressure), expressed fears that the US will use the new agreement to claim that Japan and North Korea are making progress, thereby enabling the US to remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list. The group expanded upon that idea in this response to the government’s announcement.
I hope the US will wait to see how North Korea (and Japan) follow through on this agreement before doing anything rash.
But it is revealing that even a natural defender of the government’s use of diplomacy to extract concessions from Pyongyang has greeted Friday’s announcement with skepticism for reasons having less to do with North Korea than with the US. The damage of Mr. Abe’s year in office, during which the US and Japan went opposite directions on North Korea without bothering to discuss it openly and frankly. Japanese have some right to be distrustful of the US — but at the same time, it was wrong for Japanese to think that there would be no consequences from the Abe cabinet’s hard line on North Korea. It is time to repair the damage; Friday’s announcement is a good start. After isolating itself from the other five, Japan is at the very least rejoining the process.
UPDATE: Japan’s foreign ministry announced Saturday that it would commence an investigation of lifting sanctions next week. Yomiuri reports (of course, with passive voice) that “because objections are not scarce in the government and governing parties, it is anticipated that it will be a rough passage to the decision of the time for lifting [the sanctions].”
UPDATE, two: Okumura Jun argues that the US shift made Japan’s shift more or less inevitable, and suggests further that since there will be no full accounting of the abductions until after the DPRK is gone, this agreement has less to do with hope for new revelations than with the Fukuda cabinet’s have little choice but to follow the US.