Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:41 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:41 | SYDNEY

North Korea 'abducting' the US-Japan alliance


Malcolm Cook

11 December 2007 07:18

This week, I am in Japan as a guest of the Japanese Prime Minister's Office to learn more about Japan's concerns with North Korea, which politically centre around the abduction issue. According to Japan, at least 17 Japanese citizens (including some who were residing in Europe) and likely many more have been abducted by the North Korean regime over the last 30 years.  The Koizumi and Abe administrations' elevation of this issue to the national and international policy agenda has created a new Japan-centred source of friction in US-Japan relations and their alliance. Both Koizumi and Abe were keen supporters of this alliance and came from the Japanese conservative tradition of seeing the strengthening of the alliance as the way to enhance Japan's security and role in the region and globe.

Yet, since Kim Jong-il admitted to some abductions on September 11th 2002, this issue has taken a life of its own in Japan and now is an issue no leader can ignore or be seen to be soft on.  There is strong bipartisan support for the present Japanese position that a 'solution' to the abductee issue is the precondition for Japan to normalise relations with North Korea and actively (financially) support any six-party talks' deal. The abduction issue in Japan is kept in the news and demanding of top-level political engagement as it is backed by an effective bottom-up movement led by the families of the known abductees.

This hard-line position threatens to isolate Japan in the six-party talks, as no other member likely sees it as a deal-breaker and the other five parties have their own domestic political interests for progress in these talks. The abduction issue is also creating a new sense of Japanse uncertainty over the US position on North Korea and Japan-US relations in general. The abduction issue has the potential to strengthen calls in Japan for a more autonomous security position and a more questioning approach to the alliance, especially if the six-party talks does end up with a deal that does not include a solution to the abduction issue. The collision between domestic politics and international statecraft is a constant problem and one in which domestic politics usually triumphs. Will it in this case?