No country is closer to Japan than Korea. From ancient times, the two neighbors have enjoyed intimate exchanges. Yet today Japan has relations with only one of the two Korean states, and even that relationship is contentious. While Japan normalized relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) in 1965, it has not yet formally recognized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea). This asymmetry is a major obstacle not only to repairing Japanese-Korean relations overall, but ending the Cold War in Asia.
Although Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro made two diplomatic visits to North Korea in the last four years, raising prospects of a breakthrough in Japan-North Korea relations, progress on normalization remains stalled. Several major conflicts hang over the discussions: North Korea’s overall military posture, its nuclear weapons program, and its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. In order to return to the negotiating table and resolve these issues, the two countries must not only address their outstanding disputes but also grapple with the historical roots of the conflict.
History remains an open wound in Japanese-Korean relations. The citizens of both Koreas endured great suffering and harm under Japanese colonial rule. Yet when Japan normalized relations with South Korea in 1965, it expressed no regret or apology for the past. Only in August 1995 did Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi express Japan’s regret and apology for the pain and harm done by the four decades of colonialism. Three years later, the governments of Japan and South Korea signed a Joint Declaration affirming the contents of the Murayama Statement. Yet, even after forty years of normalization and with millions of people and billions of dollars of goods crossing each year between the two countries, the wounds inflicted by Japanese imperialism are scarcely healed and easily inflamed. For instance, when Japan laid claim to a disputed island between the two countries — Tokdo (in Korean) or Takeshima (in Japanese) — heated demonstrations broke out throughout South Korea. A subsequent speech by South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun in March 2005 roundly criticized Japan, describing the Murayama Statement and the Joint Declaration of 1998 as inadequate.
However belated and incomplete, the process of normalization between Japan and South Korea has at least been underway for forty years. Japan’s relationship with the northern half of the peninsula is considerably less advanced. For instance, until 2002, Japan neglected even to apologize to North Korea. If history remains a contested issue between Tokyo and Seoul, it is an even thornier topic between Tokyo and Pyongyang. North Korea’s founder and first leader was an anti-Japanese partisan leader, Kim Il Sung. The fierce hatred between the partisans and the Japanese “bandit suppression” forces became the very founding spirit of the country. This history makes a Japanese apology and expression of regret for that past indispensable to the normalization of relations.
Japan’s role in the Korean War is also a sore point. When the United States entered the war to assist South Korea, Japan automatically became an important base for U.S. military, logistical and technical activities. Japan’s National Railway, Coast Guard, and Red Cross all cooperated in the war on the U.S. side. Japanese sailors led the 1st Marine Division to their Inchon landing, and minesweepers of the Japanese coast guard cleared the way for U.S. forces to land at Wonsan. Throughout the war, U.S. B-29 bombers from Yokota (near Tokyo) and Kadena (in Okinawa) flew ceaseless bombing raids on North Korean towns, dams, and other facilities. Japan did not decide to provide this support in accordance with any decision by its government. As a defeated and occupied country, it was unconditionally obliged to obey the orders of the occupation forces. Although the Japanese people therefore have no sense or memory of having participated in this war, North Korea considers Japan a belligerent country that provided full support for the United States and South Korea.
For 52 years since the cessation of hostilities, the ceasefire in the Korean War has persisted without a peace treaty. U.S. bases are still in Japan, and Japan and North Korea remain locked in confrontation. During this time, North Korea engaged in irregular activities to gather intelligence on U.S. and Japanese bases, sending spy vessels and agents with false passports, and at times abducting Japanese people in order, presumably, to secure passports for spies sent overseas. In the 1990s, the development and deployment of medium-range missiles and the suspicions over North Korean nuclear weapon development plans heightened tensions between the two countries. As victims of the 1945 U.S. nuclear attack, the Japanese people are extremely sensitive to the emergence of any new nuclear weapon-possessing country among its neighbors. Ending the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the deployment of its missiles aimed at Japan is a major subject for Japan-North Korea negotiations. Naturally the North Korean side will also make proposals about U.S. bases in Japan.
In September 1990, nearly half a century after the end of colonial rule, negotiations between Japan and North Korea began on these matters. North Korea had begun to rethink its position following the end of the Cold War and the opening of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and South Korea. The Japanese government knocked on North Korea’s door, expressing regret over past colonial rule, and a mission went to Pyongyang consisting of Kanemaru Shin of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Tanabe Makoto of the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) bearing a personal letter from Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru. A three-party (LDP, JSP, and Workers Party of Korea) declaration on normalization was adopted. The Japanese side expressed an apology and a desire to compensate for the misery and misfortune caused by 36 years of Japanese colonialism and for the losses incurred in the 45 years since, and a readiness to open diplomatic relations.
Japan-North Korea negotiations on normalization then opened in January 1991, continued until May 1992, before breaking down following the eighth round. Combining to block progress were Japan’s resistance to any compensation for post-1945 “losses” to North Korea (despite the “Three Party Agreement  the negative attitude of the South Korean government toward any Japanese rapprochement with North Korea, suspicions over the North Korean nuclear program, and, not least, U.S. pressures on Japan. Kanemaru himself was arrested on corruption charges in November 1992. In 1995, the Murayama cabinet made an effort to reopen negotiations, but ended up only providing some rice aid to the North. It was not an opportune time for rapprochement. Missile tests and various spy ship encroachments into Japanese waters complicated negotiations as did the nuclear crisis that in 1993-94 brought the United States and North Korea to the brink of war.
More ominously, another issue gradually came to overshadow all other concerns: North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens fifteen years earlier. The suspicions began in the 1980s. Then, in 1987, KAL Flight 858 exploded over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 people aboard. South Korean courts convicted a North Korean woman named Kim Hyon Hui, who had been traveling on a fake Japanese passport. She stated that a woman abducted from Japan, whom she knew as Lee Eun Hye, had taught her Japanese . A few years later, a North Korean agent who had defected to South Korea gave evidence that he had seen a woman named Megumi at a training facility for agents. Yokota Megumi was thirteen years old when she disappeared from the Japanese port city of Niigata in 1977. Her parents immediately took up her case, giving rise to the movement for the rescue of abducted Japanese. The issue of the abductions became — and remains in 2005 — the major single stumbling block to reconciliation.
On September 17, 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi surprised the international community by visiting Pyongyang. This unexpected turn of events was nevertheless the result of long, secret negotiations that began at the initiative of the North Korean side at the end of 2001. “Mr. X,” a North Korean who enjoyed the confidence of leader Kim Jong Il, approached Tanaka Hitoshi, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asia-Pacific Bureau. Tanaka reported to Prime Minister Koizumi, and secret contacts began. The only ones privy to these negotiations were the prime minister, his foreign minister, and three other high-ranking officials. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shinzo, who favored a hard line on the abduction issue, did not find out about the negotiations until they were revealed at a Pyongyang meeting of bureau heads of the two Foreign Ministries in August 2002. The announcement of the Koizumi visit came at the end of the same month.
The September meeting between the Japanese and North Korean leaders was tense and dramatic. It lasted a single afternoon. Koizumi reportedly took with him his own bento lunchbox to Pyongyang and then brought it back to Tokyo that night, unopened. The two leaders agreed to “make every possible effort for an early normalization of relations.” Koizumi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for “the tremendous damage and suffering” inflicted on the people of Korea during the colonial era, while Kim Jong Il apologized for the abductions of 13 Japanese and for the dispatch of spy ships in Japanese waters.
More specifically, Kim admitted and apologized for the abduction between 1977 and 1982 of a group of Japanese civilians, among them a schoolgirl, a beautician, a cook, and three dating couples whisked away from remote Japanese beaches. In addition, North Korean agents — now believed to have been Japanese Red Army hijackers who settled in Pyongyang in 1970 — abducted three students who had been touring Europe and brought them to Pyongyang either to teach Japanese-language courses to intelligence agents or so that overseas operatives could appropriate their identities. Insisting that he had no personal knowledge of all this, Kim blamed the abductions on “some elements of a special agency of state” who were “carried away by fanaticism and desire for glory.”
Three weeks after the Summit, five of the thirteen original abductees returned to Japan in a special plane. The “Pyongyang Five” — two married couples snatched on summer evening dates by the Japan Sea in 1978 and a woman seized as a 19-year old nurse on the island of Sado in the same summer — returned to Tokyo on October 15, 2002 for what was supposed to be only 10 days to two weeks. According to the agreement between the two governments, the Five would then return to Pyongyang to work out their long-term future and that of their families.
Kim also apologized for the incursions of “mystery ships” into Japanese waters. Just a week before the Pyongyang meeting, Japan salvaged a “mystery ship” it had sunk after a brief gun battle in the East China Sea in December 2001, leaving Kim little choice but to acknowledge the incursion. A Special Forces unit had been engaged in exercises, he claimed lamely: “I had not imagined that it would go to such lengths and do such things . . . The Special Forces are a relic of the past and I want to take steps to wind them up.” The North Korean side attributed these acts of abduction and spying — clear violations of the human rights of Japanese citizens and of the sovereignty of the Japanese state — to the abnormal situation between the two countries and promised that they would never be repeated.
Japan’s apology, meanwhile, was made possible when Pyongyang dropped its demand for compensation in exchange for the promise of Japanese economic “cooperation.” Both sides stood to benefit from such cooperation. According to calculations by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, normalization would lead to substantial “aid and development” programs, opening lucrative business opportunities for core factions of the Party and their associates in the recession-hit construction industry in the future building of roads, bridges, dams, power stations, railways, and other elements of North Korean infrastructure. For Pyongyang, on the other hand, the need for economic reconstruction outweighed reservations over abandoning the claims for compensation for colonialism and war.
Initially Koizumi’s diplomacy and the moves to normalize relations with North Korea drew a positive public response in Japan. North Korea’s admission and apology for its criminal actions was an act without precedent in its history. Kim Jong Il’s conciliatory response, which conceded so much to his old enemy Japan, showed how determined he was to achieve a breakthrough in relations. Yet instead of taking this apology as a desire to turn over a new leaf, Japan and the United States denounced the North Korean leader and called for further punishment. As for Japan’s apology, it was completely forgotten in Tokyo and ignored by the Japanese media. The “harm” caused by Japan over thirty-five years of colonial rule seemed to the dominant media and much of the public as nothing compared to the harm done to Japan in more recent decades.
As the news of North Korea’s admissions sank in, and as the abductees themselves returned, widespread shock, anguish and anger followed. Japanese anger flowed over Pyongyang’s explanations of the fate of the remaining eight abductees. Much of the information strained credulity. One couple was said to have died between 1979 and 1981, both of heart failure although the husband was only 24 years old and his wife 27. Further, the husband allegedly suffered a heart attack when swimming on a day that, it turned out, a typhoon had battered the Korean coast. A second couple was said to have died within a week of each other in 1986, one of cirrhosis of the liver and the other of a traffic accident. A third couple died along with their child as the result of a defective coke heater. The bodies of all of these people conveniently disappeared without a trace in the mid-1990s, washed away in floods, dam bursts, and landslides. Pyongyang reported that the remains of a seventh casualty, allegedly killed in a traffic accident in 1996, had first been washed away in the floods, but then recovered and re-interred in a common grave. Subjected to DNA testing in Japan, the remains turned out to be those of a middle-aged woman. The eighth, and most poignant, case is that of the schoolgirl Yokota Megumi. According to Pyongyang, she had married a North Korean man and given birth to a daughter, Hye Gyong, but had suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1993 when her daughter was just five years old.
Angry, disbelieving Japanese families of the victims denounced Pyongyang’s explanations as a travesty and insisted that their loved ones must still be alive and should be brought back, if necessary “by force.” The suspicion spread that there might be more Japanese abductees than at first suspected — perhaps as many as 40 or even 100.
The media showered attention on the abductees. The Japanese public greeted the drama of the slow “recovery” of their Japanese-ness and the eventual casting off of their Kim Jong Il badges with tears of national relief. Yet the mainstream media failed to mention that during the colonial era Japan had abducted hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work as prostitutes (“comfort women”) for Japanese soldiers or to work in mines, factories, and low-ranking jobs in the Japanese military such as guarding Western prisoners during World War 11. Viewed in this larger historical context, by Koreans north and south, the transformation of the obviously criminal abductions of thirteen Japanese citizens into the crime of the century and the Japanese into the ultimate victims of Asian brutality had a painful air of unreality.
The abduction issue owes its centrality in Japanese politics to a national movement composed of three main strands. The National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Abducted by North Korea (Sukuukai, or the “Rescue Association”), the National Association of Families of Japanese Abducted by North Korea (Kazokukai, or “Families Association),” and the Association of Dietmembers for the Japanese Abductees (Rachi Giin Renmei”) all believe in applying maximum pressure on North Korea and, should negotiations prove unsuccessful, rescuing the abducted. Sato Katsumi, head of a small think-tank specializing in Korean problems and founder of the Rescue Association, has written that Japan should focus on “operations” that provoke the Kim Jong Il regime to collapse from within . In other words, the abduction problem serves as a means to the end of forcing the collapse of the North Korean system . And yet, the overthrow of the Pyongyang government, which many supporters of these abductee organizations unwit