Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Amid the general satisfaction greeting the announcement that North Korea will suspend its military nuclear program and once again accept international inspections, the ambivalent – to put it mildly – attitude of Japan sticks out. This is because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has found himself trapped between the devil of the unresolved problem of his compatriots kidnapped by North Koreans, important for his electorate, and the deep blue sea: the option to quit the six-party group (United States, China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and Japan) that has undertaken negotiations on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
Abe’s dilemma explains the apparent paradox of his statement – “We cannot contribute to economic aid. I have taken this decision” – and a declaration made at the same time by his Foreign Affairs Minister, Aso Taro, who said the talks “had obtained a big result. It was a difficult task and we remained united until the end.”
When Christopher Hill, head of the United States delegation at the six-party talks, returned to the atrium of his hotel in Beijing at 3am on 13 February, he looked tired but was all smiles. Answering journalists’ questions, he said: “We got an excellent result. It was a long day that called for plenty of effort from the part of many”. The last session of the talks that started on 8 February lasted for 16 hours.
The accord stipulates that the government of Pyongyang will undertake to close the plutonium reactor of Yongbyon within six months, under the monitoring of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (AIEA). The next step will be the total dismantling of all nuclear structures for military purposes. In exchange the United States, China, South Korea and Russia will undertake to offer North Korea one million tons of oil: 50,000 when the Yongbyon reactor shuts down and the rest while all other such structures are being dismantled.
The accord is amazing because it came through only four months after North Korea’s first nuclear test (9 October) that totally nullified the agreement of principle signed at the end of talks in September 2005. Under this accord, the Pyongyang government committed to starting a denuclearization process!
Immediately afterwards, on the initiative of Japan and the United States, the Security Council ordered economic sanctions to be imposed on North Korea. However, at the same time, governments that are members of the six-party talks launched intense diplomatic activity to bring the rebel, reclusive nation back to the negotiating table. Credit for their success goes above all to China that has been sponsoring the six-party talks since 2003 and to the United States, which showed well gauged flexibility without giving in to the blackmail of Pyongyang.
Presenting the agreement to the media, the Chinese delegate Wu Dawei confirmed the positive assessment of Hill: “The result of the discussions in these days marks an important and substantial step ahead. What has been agreed will turn out to be beneficial not only for the peace, stability and development of the Korean peninsula but also for the improvement of ties between nations involved and for the construction a harmonious north-east Asia.” Apart from psychological nuances, this positive assessment was shared by other delegates too.
That is, except for the contradictions presented by Japan.
The thing is that Abe cannot allow himself neither to become alienated from his electorate nor to quit the six-party talks.
On the one hand, there is the problem of many Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korean regime agents in the seventies and eighties. In 2002, during a visit to Pyongyang by the then Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted this and allowed some to return home. But there is no word of others who are believed by Japanese police to be still in North Korea. Since then, Abe has dedicated much effort to identifying a solution to the problem and this is where his approach of no compromise springs from. Time and again, Abe has said: “Japan will not give any assistance unless there is progress in the matter of the kidnappings.”
On the other hand, without the assent of the Japanese delegation, it would have hard to reach agreement. To overcome the obstacle, the head of the delegation, Kenichiro Sasae, resorted to a Sibylline expression, talking about “indirect cooperation”. What this means exactly is anybody’s guess. Responding to a parliamentary question. Abe said: “Through diplomatic channels, Japan obtained consensus not to offer energy material to North Korea.”
Tokyo’s attitude has had repercussions in Seoul too.
The news of the positive outcome of the Beijing meeting was welcomed by the government a good deal of the population of South Korea with relief, because once again the spectre of war was removed and still more because inter-Korean ties that were disrupted last July may now resume.
All the same, there is anxiety, sparked by the realization that the accord places an enormous financial burden on the shoulders of South Korea, not least due to Japan’s passivity.