Stuck on the Sidelines; Why Japan Is Sitting out the New Nuclear Deal with North Korea

Newsweek International, March 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

Stuck on the Sidelines; Why Japan Is Sitting out the New Nuclear Deal with North Korea


Byline: Yoichi Funabashi (Funabashi is chief diplomatic correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo and an International Council member of the Asia Society. His new book, "The Peninsula Question," is forthcoming.)

Lost in the press coverage of the new nuclear deal with North Korea was a disturbing development: Japan's decision to remain the odd man out. Although it signed the agreement alongside Washington, Beijing, Seoul, Pyongyang and Moscow, Tokyo alone refused to provide any direct energy assistance to North Korea, in exchange for which Pyongyang has promised to start dismantling its weapons programs.

Japan's refusal stands in stark contrast to its behavior the last time a major deal was struck with North Korea: the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under the 1994 deal, Japan and South Korea were the largest financial contributors, agreeing together to pay more than 90 percent of the estimated $5 billion construction costs for two light-water nuclear reactors, which North Korea was promised in return for giving up its weapons programs. China, which was not party to the deal, paid nothing. This time, however, Japan is the outlier: a radical departure from its tactics in the past and a worrisome shift in Northeast Asia.

Japan's decision not to participate owes to a particularly thorny issue in the country's domestic politics: the question of the abductees. From the time he took office last September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made settling the abductee issue central to his nationalist appeal. North Korea acknowledges having kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s, but Tokyo claims there are 17 victims, and the real number could be even higher. Abe was one of the first Japanese politicians to raise public awareness of the issue, and came to office swearing to make it his "top priority," and "never" to compromise.

Such rhetoric, unfortunately, has now painted him into a corner. A nuclear-armed North Korea is Japan's greatest nightmare. Yet having made so much of the abductee issue, the prime minister cannot be seen to cooperate on any deal with Pyongyang until that problem (which was not raised in the Six-Party Talks) is solved. And so far, Japan and North Korea have made no progress on the matter since a Pyongyang summit between Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong Il in September 2002.

It's easy to understand why the kidnapping issue resonates with Japan's public. But Abe's problems also reflect a deeper dynamic. Even as the power of Washington's neoconservatives has declined in recent years, Japan's own neocons have been on the rise. …

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