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30 September 2014

The Japanese envoy stood before TV cameras yesterday in Shenyang, northern China, to deliver his disappointing message: after nearly five hours spent negotiating with a North Korean delegation he had no fresh news on the fate of abducted Japanese nationals.

It wasn’t the outcome that Japan had been counting on. Since agreeing in May to restart talks, Tokyo has pressed Pyongyang to reinvestigate the whereabouts of Japanese people kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s. Tokyo had partly relaxed economic sanctions as an incentive and for months officials from both sides had shuttled to secret meetings – three held in Malaysia and China – so they could discuss their differences away from the media spotlight.

In Japan there was hope that Pyongyang was finally negotiating in good faith. After all, why else would the totalitarian regime agree to a re-examination of the abductions issue?

But after yesterday’s meeting it is clear that North Korea has been playing for time. Even as Japanese officials made demands for an overdue progress report on the investigations, North Korea’s chief negotiator Song Il-ho was pushing back, denying that there had been any talk of a timeline. The North Koreans, it seemed, were holding out for more concessions from the Japanese side.

This is all too familiar territory for Japanese officials, who have negotiated with North Korea before: the watered down promises, on-again-off-again agreements and new conditions added just as a breakthrough seems imminent are common occurrences.

Pyongyang’s standard tactic is to act out – an experimental nuclear blast or a ballistic missile test, for instance – and then to demand that it get something in return for better behaviour. But in this case, North Korea appears to have teken a different approach. By dangling the prospect of progress on the kidnappings issue, Pyongyang has looked to draw Japan away from its usual coordinated stand alongside the US. and South Korea.

During yesterday’s meeting the Japanese delegation didn’t shy away from condemning North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development programme. Finding out more about the Japanese abductees – numbering in the hundreds by some estimates – was clearly the priority for Tokyo.

The best case scenario would be a repeat of 2002, when North Korea revealed that five of more than a dozen abductees were alive and would be allowed to return to Japan. This kind of issue has become ever more urgent as the families of the abductees grow older and more frail. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe would like nothing more than to add this success to his political legacy; he’s even made it a focus of his career.

But why negotiate with a North Korean regime that rarely lives up to its side of any presumed pact? And what would it do to Japan’s status globally – let alone the multilateral effort to remove the North Korean nuclear threat – if Tokyo were to soften its stance toward Pyongyang at a time when its allies are maintaining a tougher line? These are questions that officials in Tokyo and the general public in Japan should be debating as they consider whether it’s worth proceeding.

Kenji Hall is Asia editor at large for Monocle.


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