By Leslie Forgach – The US removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 12th in an effort to keep the Six Party Talks concerning North Korean nuclear disarmament on track. North Korea remained on the list due to its inability to reach a resolution with Japan over the unknown fate of 12 Japanese nationals thought to have been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. The US made the move to de-list North Korea, despite the lack of progress on the abduction issue, in order to adhere to the “action-for-action” principle set forth in Phase II of the Six Party Talks. North Korea had dispelled IAEA inspectors from its nuclear facilities last month and threatened to restart its nuclear program if the U.S. did not follow through on its agreement to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The US justified its move stating it was a necessary step to achieve the ultimate objective of the Talks, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. US officials have tried to assure skeptics that North Korea, too, conceded on key issues crucial to verifying its nuclear program. For Japan, however, U.S. attention to its concerns is now being questioned.
The Six Party Talk’s objective is North Korean disarmament; another component is the normalization of North Korea-Japan relations. For Japan, normalization cannot occur until issues of the past, namely the abduction issue, are settled. A day before the US made their announcement, Japan extended sanctions on North Korea for the fourth time for lack of progress on the abduction issue, a move made in conjunction with its refusal to contribute economic and energy assistance as stipulated under the Six Party Talks 2005 Joint Statement. To Japan, the abduction issue is seen as vital to their national sovereignty and the safety of their people. Some in Japan are expressing a sense of “betrayal” at the US decision, as well as disappointment in their own government for not doing more before the decision was made. Equally disconcerting was the fact that Prime Minister Aso was notified of the decision only 30 minutes prior to its implementation. Japan’s dissatisfaction should be of concern to the US because it could affect Tokyo’s ability to support US requests, such as cooperation in the War on Terror.
Japan’s cooperation is integral to the Six Party Talks. For example, in 2002 when the US urged Japan to exclude economic aid from its negotiations on normalization with North Korea, Japan complied, illustrating Japan’s commitment to the US within the framework of the Talks. However, Japan sees the US as less steadfast. In 2007 the US stated it had “no legal obligations” for keeping North Korea on the list based on the abduction issue. Japan has relied on the support of the other Six Party members, but until now, the US has had the most substantial leverage by keeping North Korea on the list, effectively blocking economic and diplomatic benefits that would be available to North Korea once taken off.
Tension thus remains between the US focus on disarming North Korea, and Japan’s focus on resolving the abduction issue. All Party members realize Japan is indispensable in providing economic and energy aid incentives to North Korea. If another party-member is unable to provide Japan’s share of aid and energy assistance, North Korea will undoubtedly point the finger at Japan for failed negotiations. Should the US be able to pressure Japan into relinquishing its convictions on the abduction issue for the sake of progress of the Talks, it threatens the spirit of “partnership” the alliance has aimed to achieve, further supporting increasing views in Japan that the US is unreliable.
Comparing the stakes of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula to the fate of those abducted 30-40 years ago may seem trivial until you look at it from Japan’s perspective. Japan is troubled by the lack of punishment North Korea receives when it repeatedly breaks commitments to international agreements such as conducting nuclear tests, launching test missiles into the Sea of Japan, and proliferating abroad with evidence of ties to state sponsors of terrorism and terrorist organizations. Japan views North Korea’s inability to be forthright in the abduction investigations as one disingenuous act in a line of many. However, the question that remains is to what extent the abduction issue needs to be resolved in order to satisfy Japan’s conditions on normalization. Although Japan-North Korea normalization is tied into the Six Party process, denuclearization is after all the ultimate goal in these negotiations.
photo credit: US Department of State