Accessibility links

Tensions Remain High Between N. Korea and Japan - 2003-09-17

One year ago, Japan and North Korea held an unprecedented summit, sparking expectations of a shift away from the animosity that has always dominated their relations. But, the relationship has suffered one setback after another since then, and tensions between the Asian neighbors remain as high as ever.

Television broadcasts on September 17, 2002, showed a remarkable picture: Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il shaking hands and walking together in the North Korean capital - a dramatic turnaround after a century of animosity.

Tokyo was the brutal colonial master of the Korean Peninsula for much of the first half of the 20th Century, and memories of its harsh treatment remain vivid in both North and South Korea.

At the 2002 summit, Mr. Koizumi apologized to the North Korean people for the sins of the colonial era. The two leaders signed the Pyongyang Declaration, in which they agreed to work towards the long-delayed goal of establishing official ties. But an unexpected admission by Kim Jong Il stole the summit spotlight. He confirmed Japan's long-standing accusation that during the Cold War, North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens for spying purposes. Mr. Kim said 13 Japanese had been taken, and only five of those were still alive.

Mr. Kim apparently calculated that this admission would earn respect from the Japanese public. Instead, the Japanese were outraged.

On October 15, in a conciliatory move, Pyongyang allowed the surviving abductees to return to Japan for what was supposed to be a two-week visit. But their families were forced to remain in North Korea.

And then, one day later, U.S. officials said the North had admitted it was working on nuclear weapons, a violation of several international agreements.

North Korea had already test-fired a multistage ballistic missile over Japan in 1998, proving it was close to having a delivery system that could reach Japan within minutes. Now, there was the possibility that its missiles might carry nuclear warheads.

These two issues, the abductees and North Korea's nuclear program, have dominated contacts between the two countries since, and prevented the improvement in relations the summit seemed to have promised. Nearly a year later after they arrived, the abductees remain in Japan. Tokyo has repeatedly asked Pyongyang to allow their children and spouses to join them, and to provide more information on those who died. Pyongyang has refused, saying the Japanese should instead send the abductees back.

This, perhaps even more than the nuclear issue, has brought anti-North Korean sentiment among the Japanese public to its highest point in decades.

Shigeru Yokota, father of one kidnap victim, says Japanese-North Korean ties cannot move forward unless the families of the abductees who returned are allowed to travel to Japan.

Grassroots organizations that support the abductees claim more than 100 Japanese are being held in North Korea against their will. The claim has not been proven, but suspicion that it is true has stoked even greater anger among the Japanese.

The Japanese government has been no less insistent on the issue.

Government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda says Japan cannot have better communication with North Korea unless the families can join the abductees.

Noriyuki Suzuki, a North Korean expert who monitors the Stalinist state's media for the Tokyo-based organization Radiopress, says financial considerations could eventually push Pyongyang to change its stance.

He says poverty-stricken North Korea wants Japan's economic aid, so it will probably eventually send the families of the abductees to Japan. He says North Korea understands that this is an important step it must take before relations between the two countries can progress.

But, on Wednesday, the North blamed Japan for the failure to improve relations. A Foreign Ministry statement said the kidnappings were an "isolated" issue that had already been settled, and criticized Japan for its actions before and during World War II.

The Foreign Ministry statement also criticized Japan's "hostile policy" towards North Korea, an apparent reference to Tokyo's condemnation of Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

Japan has stood forcefully with the United States, South Korea, China and Russia in demanding that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program.

It has joined the United States and nine other countries in a program designed to intercept the ships of rogue states carrying narcotics or weapons technology - a program clearly aimed at North Korea, which allegedly exports tons of heroin each year and has sold missile technology to countries in the Middle East.

Japan's Defense Agency, meanwhile, is seeking parliament's approval for a billion-dollar missile defense system to deter possible North Korean strikes.

There is another complicating factor in the equation. Thousands of people of Korean descent live in Japan, and many support Pyongyang, sending cash, food and other items to the North. Much of it travels by a North Korean ferry that visits Japan periodically, the only direct link between the two nations.

The vessel has recently come under scrutiny, since Japan and other nations believe it is also used to smuggle drugs and other contraband.

The ship was detained Wednesday while Japanese officials investigated whether on an earlier voyage it carried more people than its legal limit. During a visit in August, the ferry was subjected by the Japanese to a thorough safety check.

The ferry is a relatively minor issue, but in Japanese eyes it symbolizes the North Korean regime and the broader tensions between the two nations. The boat has drawn large protests, with people saying it is unwelcome in Japanese ports.