In light of the first government-level talks between Japan and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) for over four years, Dr Ra Mason analyzes why Tokyo-Pyongyang relations are mired in political deadlock and proposes areas for possible hope and reconciliation.
Ra is developing research into the risks mediated between Japan's state, market and society which have fundamental implications for national, regional and global security.
Stretching back to the normalization talks of the early 1990s, opportunities for rapprochement with North Korea have been repeatedly scuppered, avoided or missed by a series of administrations in Tokyo. During the period between the test-launch of the DPRK's Nodong missile into the Sea of Japan in May 1993 and the North's second nuclear test sixteen years later, Japan's state, market and society presided over an unprecedented recalibration of risk framed against the DPRK. This included combining and conflating nuclear, missile and abduction issues, as well as highlighting the potential risks posed to Japan's sovereignty, national identity and domestic society by Pyongyang's illicit activities, state-sponsored terrorism and international brinkmanship. In more recent years, media, National Diet and civil society attention towards North Korea has waned slightly in Japan. However, this comes only as the saturation point of a nationwide obsession with all things associated with the DPRK, reached during the first decade of the 21st Century, has given way to the continuation of an uneasy equilibrium in bilateral relations and societal perceptions. This includes the maintenance of a high state-level security risk calibration identified with Pyongyang's leadership and ruling regime, continued negative media speculation regarding the North's actions and future, and negligible efforts from mainstream political, market and societal actors to engage those in the North in a more constructive fashion.
Do, then, the current inter-government talks, the first for over four years, represent a way out of the seeming deadlock in the status quo between Tokyo and Pyongyang? The simple answer is, in the short-term at least, probably not. The reasons for this extend well beyond the borders of the two countries in question, and are somewhat complex, but can be clarified in one sense through the concepts of motivation and momentum. Put simply, the actors with the greatest ability to affect positive change may not be motivated to do so, or, more counter-productively still, are actually motivated to resist such moves. In addition, during the post-Cold War period, a variety of powerful actors, including prime ministers, leading bureaucrats, business leaders and media editors have largely converged towards a negative framing of the entirety of North Korea. Furthermore, this has been reinforced by the largely complementary foreign policy and commercial interests and agendas of the surrounding powers – most critically those of Japan's only official ally, the United States. In combination, these factors have created momentum, which has led to the centre-ground of opinion across multiple sectors becoming so staunchly distrusting and opposed to all that stems from the North and its rulers that more moderate stances towards Pyongyang are discredited. The result is an almost total debilitation of prospects for realizing extensive change in Japan-DPRK relations.
The inability of either new leadership in North Korea, or comprehensive administrative change in Japan, to have a major impact on Tokyo's plans for its modus-operandi vis-à-vis Pyongyang underlines the extent of this impasse. The structure of the regional security environment, supported largely by policy makers operating within the strategic and tactical bounds of realpolitik, also does little to provide a climate conducive to improving relations between Japan and the DPRK. In the mid to longer term, Korean unification – premised on South Korea's effective assimilation of the North – is widely viewed as the obvious means by which tensions with, what would become the former, DPRK could be resolved. Yet, from the promises of the Sunshine Policy articulated by South Korean premier, Kim Dae-Jung, in the late 1990s, until now, unification has not been realised. Indeed, one Korea remains no more than an indefinite and unimplemented pipe-dream. The United States' and China's tactical military concerns over US troops stationed in the ROK becoming positioned within a stone's throw of their Chinese counterparts, including the related political implications, is one reason for this. The inability of South Korea's stuttering, post-Financial Crisis, economy to support the assimilation of a collapsed North Korean state and population – coupled with the reluctance of surrounding powers to commit to its aid in this endeavor – is another. Headed by the latest incarnation of the Kim dynasty, the determination of Pyongyang's regime to cling-on to power at all costs provides a powerful third factor entrenching the status quo.
The survival of the North Korean state has, thus far, been achieved in no small part though the use of domestic repression and international brinkmanship, but also through the indoctrination of exclusionary nationalism and the deflection of societal malcontent towards rival states, including Japan. In this sense, the core of the problems facing Japan-DPRK relations is one which derives, ultimately, from a mismatch of constructed ideologies and the imbalance of how risks are framed, mediated and calibrated as a result. For example, the gulf in focus of perceptions between Japan's ongoing public and political sphere outrage towards the North's state-sponsored abduction of Japanese citizens, and North Korea's continued demands of greater compensation for the thousands of Koreans forcibly relocated to Japan as labourers and sex-slaves, or comfort women, during the pre-War and wartime periods of colonization, is indisputable. In this way, both sides frame their own national identities in juxtaposition to those of a negatively depicted adversary across the single body of water which divides them. In Japan's case, this negative framing has been conflated – by actors intersecting the state, market and society – with issues such as ballistic weapons development and nuclear proliferation. This has, thus, led to a multifaceted recalibration of associated risks across these sectors. The result is an escalation of a hegemonic narrative which justifies and perpetuates the implementation and maintenance of hard-line policies directed at Pyongyang – and discredits voices which oppose such.
However, though foreign policy has rarely, if ever, been directed by ethics, the understanding that ideological factors resulting in discordant national identities are central to the lack of progress in Japan's dealings with North Korea, does, potentially, open the door to the instrumentalization of ethically-based concepts into policy formation. The crux of this argument is that, essentially, if Japan is to gain in geo-political and economic terms from improved relations with the North, it must find a way to reframe North Korea and recalibrate the risks it identifies with the Pyongyang-based regime more favourably. Engagement with the North's new young leader, Kim Jong-Un, is obviously one aspect of this. In addition, greater dialogue at the leadership level needs to be combined with a shift in political and media focus, away from the unlikely probability of North Korean missiles striking Japan, towards issues of human security on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. The rekindling of normalization talks, for instance, may pivot as much around an ability to persuade policy makers in Tokyo that increased economic ties between the two states offers an opportunity for them to gain political capital, as the incentives of commercial benefit. Nevertheless, the underlying concerns in Japan with regards to balancing against China's rise economically, as well as geo-politically, may also play a role, because Japan has the potential to compete for economic influence in North Korea's restructuring economy. Indeed, the desperate sate of Pyongyang's economic balance sheet in some ways only increases their reliance on external investment, and favours other parties when negotiating pertaining terms and conditions of trade. China leads the way, and has already been accused of economic colonialism in this respect, but Japan might be able to seize the opportunity to join such an endeavour, if political ties are improved. The domestic portrayal of leading Japanese politicians, acting in a philanthropic, human security-based, role towards a needy neighbouring populous, will likely be significant in this prospective negotiating game.
Of course, such a wholesale switch of stance and attitude is neither facile nor instantaneous. Furthermore, Kim's reassertion of his paternal predecessors' philosophical outlook and military-based rule is an obstacle in itself – along with remaining elements of the structural constraints already outlined. However, if North Korea's leader can be slowly encouraged to take a seat at the table with whichever Japanese premier is currently in power, and Japan's media market and society can be persuaded to reconceptualise the North, the risks currently attached to the DPRK's state apparatus might well be reassigned elsewhere. It is through such a process of identity-based mediation of risk, that ideological change can be realized. The consequent shift in framing would doubtless bring changes in political rhetoric, reformation of the hegemonic narrative, and, ultimately, the restructuring of policy. If such a process can take hold, perhaps Japan can change its grander plans for relations with North Korea, and smooth the rocky road to rapprochement.
Please note: The views expressed in here are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect those of NIJS, the White Rose East Asia Centre, the University of Sheffield, or the University of Leeds.