Forecasting Breakthrough in DPRK-Japan Relations: Zhang Liangui

By | January 23, 2013 | No Comments

japan_nkorea_flag_400In the lead-up to today’s outburst by the DPRK, Chinese experts sent an array of messages to, and about, North Korea. Zhang Liangui tends to be one of the heavier messengers. In the article translated below, the messages are multiple: “Make nice with the Japanese,” he tells the North Koreans. But Zhang also cautions his readers that any diplomatic breakthrough should be interpreted as revolving around North Korea’s determination to develop and keep its nukes, and that changes could benefit the US.  There’s an air of desperation, then, in this writing: China wants to see lowered tensions, but it may not be prepared for the results. — Roger Cavazos, Cordinator. 

Zhang Liangui [张琏瑰], “North Korean-Japanese Relations May See Breakthrough [朝日关系可能有大突破],” Huanqiu Shibao, January 17, 2013. Translated by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga; notes by Adam Cathcart

According to reports, in December 2012 North Korea privately expressed to Japan that it would be willing to reopen inter-governmental negotiations with Japan in February of this year. Japan believes that North Korea’s motives for this move aren’t clear [意图不明], so the Japanese government still hasn’t given a response. However, judging from the foreign policy needs of North Korea and Japan, a resumption in North Korea-Japan inter-governmental bureau chief-level negations are not just necessary: There is also a likelihood that the relationship could see breakthrough progress within the year.

Looking back on 2012, North Korean-Japanese engagement was unprecedentedly active [接触空前活跃]. In January and March, North Korea’s Ambassador for the Negations of Normalization of North Korean-Japanese ties Song Ilho [宋日昊] and Japanese politician Hiroshi Nakai [中井洽] dealt with the issue of abductions at meetings, first in China’s northeast and then in Mongolia. [1]  The North Koreans themselves raised the issue of allowing the wives and children of Japanese abductees [日裔妻子] to return to Japan to visit their families.

In April, North Korea invited a Japanese delegation to participate in festivities for Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday and told the Japanese that the North was willing to return to bodies of those Japanese who died in the North during WWII. In June, North Korea revealed the graves of those Japanese to the Japanese media.

In July, North Korea invited Kim Jong-il’s former chef who had previously escaped North Korea, Kenji Fujimoto, to visit North Korea. In early August, talks restarted between the North Korean and Japanese Red Cross after 10 years and the North allowed Japanese descendants to visit North Korea to pay their respects at their relatives’ tombs.

In November, North Korean-Japanese inter-governmental bureau chief-level talks commenced in Mongolia. One noteworthy aspect was that the Japanese delegate was the director of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia-Pacific department. Both sides had initially arranged to meet again in early December for more bureau chief-level talks but this were delayed due to the North’s satellite launch. At the end of December, Kim Jong-un, in a rare action, personally wrote a letter to one female Japanese descendant.Rodong Sinmun 2012-12-30-01-01 Letter to japanese woman

The frequent interactions last year between North Korea and Japan reflect both sides’ pressing need to improve relations. From the North’s perspective, the foremost consideration is that improving North Korean-Japanese ties is an important part of the North’s nuclear strategy. [2]

The North’s quest for status as a nuclear country consists of two steps. First is to rush to possess nuclear weapons. They’ve basically accomplished this step through their two nuclear tests and announcing their status as a nuclear state. The second step is through multi-faceted diplomacy to compel the international community to grow accustomed to dealing with a nuclear North Korea and accept the North’s status as a nuclear state. The North has already expended much effort in improving relations with the United States, China and Russia, and improving relations with Japan is an important part of this strategy.

The ominous Monglian plain: A fitting symbol for the unknown future of Japan-DPRK relations, via Jonah Kessel, Global Post

The ominous Monglian plain: A fitting symbol for the unknown future of Japan-DPRK relations, via Jonah Kessel, Global Post

Second, North Korean expects to quickly receive Japan’s wartime reparations. When the North Koreans and Japanese were negotiating diplomatic normalization in the early 1990s, both sides had already agreed that Japan would pay the North as much as $10 billion. During (Japanese Prime Minister) Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the North in September 2002, they further discussed the arrangements for this payment. However, these discussions were later shelved due to the nuclear and abduction issues.

North Korea’s two nuclear tests have met with international sanctions and the North is facing a foreign exchange shortage, so the North desperately needs the money from war reparations to support its juche policy and build a strong and prosperous nation.

Third, Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have deadlocked over the Diaoyu and Dokdo islands, respectively, and relations with Russia have worsened over the issue of the South Kurile Islands, leaving Japanese diplomacy lost in unprecedented difficulties [陷入空前困境]. Thus, North Korea believes that progress on normalization with Japan will be easy with little effort required.

Japan has a similarly pressing need. First, the abduction issue in Japan has always been a big issue that rattles the nerves of the public [一个刺激国民神经] and affects Japanese society and politics. Any politician or political party seeking to gain votes knows the shortcut is to negotiate with the North and make progress on resolving the abduction issue.

Courtesy Kiyoshi Inoue

Courtesy Kiyoshi Inoue

Second, Japan’s relations with China, South Korea and Russia are all tense because of territorial disputes. In response, Japan has adopted a strategy to improve relations with Russia and South Korea to concentrate its strength on the confrontation with China.Since the North has always been considered China’s ally, if Japan can improve relations with the North, this is a big diplomatic strike against China.

Third, the North’s advancing nuclear and missile programs are a direct threat to Japan. Although the United States has sided with Japan completely on these issues, the United States has already established a mechanism for direct dialogue with the North. Japan is worried that the United States will establish a free-flowing system of talks to make a separate peace with the North [美国同朝鲜已建立起畅通的对话机制]. Japan is attempting to establish a dialogue mechanism with the North to avoid being left behind.

This way, if there is a sudden summit of the North Korean and Japanese leaders in 2013, or both sides dramatically grasp the spotlight on the abduction issue, no one should be surprised.

The author is a professor at the Central Party School.

[1] Hiroshi Nakai was born in Japanese-occupied Jilin (i.e., Manchukuo) in 1942. He is described by Zhang Liangui as “日本前绑架问题担当相中井洽,” or “Japan’s previously-assumed official for the abduction issue.” He retired from Japanese politics in October 2012 but is clearly still an active player.

[2] Emphasis added.

[3] Zhang’s adjective for the kind of diplomacy that could emerge between the US and the DPRK in the second Obama administration is somewhat telling: 畅通, changtong, i.e., free-flowing, unimpeded, without barriers. The notion of “direct” talks between the two so often evoked in English is rendered thus as something that could move much faster, from the Chinese point of view, than is often considered possible in Washington, more pell-mell than arduous.

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