North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals is a long-running source of contention between the two nations. Anger still simmers among many about the abductees, most famously Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped at the age of 13 in 1977.
Abe has a deep dilemma: repatriating abductees is a top priority. But as long as he sticks to it, North Korea flatly refuses to talk to the Japanese Prime Minister.
The Japanese government has said that Pyongyang kidnapped 17 of its nationals in the 1970s and 1980s; so far only five have returned and 12 are unaccounted for.
In 2002 the late DPRK leader Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped 13 Japanese nationals, with Pyongyang claiming that eight, including Megumi Yokota, were dead and that the other four never entered the country. Japan accused North Korea of handing over the false cremated remains of Yokota.
So how to break this deadlock?
It’s time for the Japanese government to change tack, former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama told NK News last week, prioritizing the normalization of diplomatic relations with the DPRK over resolving the abduction issue.
“After the normalization of diplomatic relations, the two nations will be able to work closely together on the abduction issue,” Hatoyama said in an interview on the sidelines of the Jeju Forum 2019 in South Korea.
In a wide-ranging interview, the former Prime Minister — in power from September 2009 to June 2010 — also discussed how Japan can engage North Korea, Tokyo’s role in future denuclearization, and why Shinzo Abe finds himself stuck between maximum pressure and rapprochement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: Unlike the former Junichiro Koizumi administration, which conducted two summits with North Korea, why do you think the current Shinzo Abe administration’s negotiations with the DPRK are not going well?
Yukio Hatoyama: Firstly, I think North Korea believes that it tried its best to solve the abduction issue during Koizumi’s term of office. North Korea basically sees the abduction issue as already settled.
But from Japan’s point of view, it has not been solved, as there is still the issue of the fake remains of Megumi Yokota that were given by North Korea.
Prime Minister Abe has earned more acclaim than Koizumi as a politician by showing his commitment to solving the abduction issue, an issue which helped him become premier.
For this reason, Prime Minister Abe is still pushing the abduction issue — a strategy which will only lead to a stalemate in bilateral relations.
“After the normalization of diplomatic relations, the two nations will be able to work together closely on the abduction issue”
NK News: What do you think of the idea that Japan should prioritize the normalization of diplomatic relations with North Korea, rather than focus on the abduction issue? Do you agree that they should do this?
Yukio Hatoyama: I do agree. It’s impossible to solve the abduction issue immediately and in one go, as this issue also involves hundreds of missing person cases in Japan, which may or may not be caused by North Korea.
After the normalization of diplomatic relations, the two nations will be able to work together closely on the abduction issue. I think that unless normalization comes first it will be impossible to solve the abduction issue.
NK News: What is the solution to the abduction issue? Do you think any political decision is needed to finish off this problem from the Japanese side?
Yukio Hatoyama: Megumi Yokota has become the symbol of the Japanese people who were abducted by North Korea. Her return to Japan, alive, would definitely expedite diplomatic normalization negotiations.
I’m not even sure if there is any way forward without the successful return of Megumi Yokota to Japan. If she cannot be returned, the Japanese government will need to consider the public response very carefully.
In any case, the government should put the normalization of diplomatic relations before the abduction issue.
NK News: The Abe administration continued to take its ultra-hardline approach to North Korea until last year. But since the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, Abe has relaxed his tough stance.
He has gone from suggesting a conditions-based summit with Kim Jong Un to suggesting a no-conditions summit. What explains this shift, in your opinion?
Yukio Hatoyama: Prime Minister Abe needs to explain why he has changed his stance more clearly.
He used to say that the time for dialogue had ended, and that talks for the sake of talks would be meaningless. Meanwhile, he has failed to solve the abduction issue.
I have always believed that all of these problems and disputes can only be solved through dialogue. Prime Minister Abe may have noticed this later on and corrected his course, as he had seen a change in the situation that followed many inter-Korean summits and two U.S.-North Korea summits.
He has yet to clearly explain to the Japanese public why his stance towards North Korea changed. I wonder why Japanese media have not pressed this point more strongly against the Prime Minister.
“Prime Minister Abe needs to directly talk to Chairman Kim by himself”
NK News: Previously you said in an interview published by Union of Concerned Scientists in January 2018: “I believe that whether it’s President Trump or any American president, the policy of Japan, which is now being put forward by Prime Minister Abe, following the United States administration fully in its policies is not going to be the way to resolve any kind of issue including the issue of North Korea.”
What could be a better approach in your opinion and, importantly, one that would have the support of the Japanese people?
Yukio Hatoyama: President Trump suggested the withdrawal of U.S. troops deployed in South Korea after the inter-Korean summits and the U.S.-North Korea summit.
But Japan has said that’s not good because it will change the security environment. Opinions and media reports have expressed similar sentiments concerning the withdrawal and reductions of U.S. troops in Japan.
It is very strange: if the security environment is becoming less hostile, it would be natural to move in the direction of reducing U.S. troops. But now Japan cannot make the right decisions, as it is heavily relying on the U.S. in terms of national security.
Right after the Second World War, many Japanese political leaders thought it would be only natural for U.S. troops to withdraw from Japan sometime in the future. But now the presence of U.S. troops in Japan isn’t given much of a second thought. This is strange for an independent nation like Japan.
NK News: Abe has asked U.S. President Trump to bring up the abduction issue in U.S.-North Korea summits many times. But don’t you see any risk that Kim Jong Un may say directly to Trump “the abduction issue was already settled,” which leaves no room for Abe to negotiate further with Pyongyang?
Yukio Hatoyama: Yes, Prime Minister Abe needs to directly talk to Chairman Kim by himself. Abe would owe President Trump a lot if he can help him meet with Chairman Kim. This would have a negative effect on U.S.-Japan trade negotiations. Trump may say to Japan: “Buy more weapons from the U.S.”
NK News: Japan’s Nikkei Shimbun reported that Tokyo is considering offering Pyongyang US$10 billion to settle past colonial controversies and to spur on the return of Japanese citizens. How much of an effect would money have here?
Yukio Hatoyama: Naturally, money will be needed to settle these problems. We’ve solved the same past issues between Japan and South Korea with money, after all.
NK News: Don’t you think that amount of money is too big?
Yukio Hatoyama: It is big, but it would be worth it if we really can resolve the issue with that amount of money.
North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals is a long-running source of contention between the two nations. Anger still simmers among many about the abductees, most famously Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped at the age of 13 in 1977.
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. His work has appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, Bloomberg, Asia Times, Jane's Defence Weekly and The Diplomat, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TakahashiKosuke