Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons, Peace

NORTH KOREA: Japan Off-Key at Six-Party Talks

Catherine Makino

TOKYO, Dec 11 2008 (IPS) - While the six-party talks currently underway in Beijing to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme seem to be making slow progress, Japan, one of the parties, is not unduly worried.

The others, the United States, Russia, South Korea and China, have been trying, since Monday, to persuade North Korea to accept an inspection and verification regime as part of the ‘disarmament-for-aid’ deal.

Japan insists on using the talks as a vehicle to resolve what it considers to be a priority issue – the abduction of its citizens by North Korea during the cold war years.

“The U.S. is pressuring Japan to place that [abductions] as a side issue, since the U.S. is very hungry for a diplomatic victory,’’ said Art Brown, top security consultant and former officer for the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency.

Only 16 of the abductees – taken away to be trained as spies – are known by the Japanese government. But there may have been as many as 80 who were abducted and in 2006 the North Korean government officially admitted to the kidnapping of 13 of the victims.

Brown told IPS that Washington’s focus was also narrow and that it was ‘’ignoring their [North Korea’s] existing weaponry and highly enriched uranium programme obtained from Pakistan through [rogue scientist] A. Q. Khan.”

Pyongyang is more than willing to play along with the talks as it will leave North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and the abductees issue unresolved. “The six-party talks have not been productive, in terms of ‘denuclearising the peninsula’,’’ Brown said.

Andrew Horvat, Japan expert and visiting professor at the Tokyo Keizai University, has a different take. ‘’Just the fact that they are talking to each other shows that the talks are a success. In diplomacy, often, the process is the goal.’’

Horvat noted that in this part of the world there are no multilateral organisations such as NATO or the European Parliament to keep peace.

‘’The six-party talks are the only thing vaguely approaching an international regional organisation promoting security in Northeast Asia,” Horvat said. ”If it did not exist, North Korea would be free to talk to each of the other five participants and play one off against the other, like it used to do in the past.

Horvat agreed that the Japanese view of the talks differed greatly from that of the other parties.

“For Japan the talks are a bit of a minus,” Horvat told IPS. “They threaten to downgrade the value of the U.S.-Japan alliance which benefited Japan in that it gave Japan security at a relatively low cost and with low risk to Japan itself.’’

Japan, according to Horvat, ‘’would probably be happiest if the talks just went away and that’s why the abductees issue works in favour of Japanese interests. They don’t want to see the collapse of the cold war systems in this region’’.

The talks also play against Japanese interests because they highlight the pivotal role of China which acts as host and which alone has solid relations with the other five parties.

Japan does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. Some creative diplomats in Tokyo tried to open up to Pyongyang but they were put under pressure by conservative nationalists who prefer to use the abductees issue to maintain a high level of tension with North Korea and perpetuate a cold war atmosphere.

‘’The idea is to keep the U.S. tied to Japan and thwart the possibility of development of a multilateral security architecture in Northeast Asia,’’ Horvat said.

Japan’s strategy became obvious after Tokyo used the abductees issue to refuse to deliver food aid or heavy oil to North Korea as agreed to by the parties.

In fact, non-cooperation with North Korea has become part of the domestic policy in Japan where nationalist campaigns promoted by elements within Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party have turned the abductees and their families into veritable icons of suffering and victimisation.

A nationalist group calling itself the ‘Headquarters for the Abduction Issue Government of Japan’ is distributing flyers that say: “The abduction issue is a grave problem concerning the sovereignty of Japan as well as the lives and security of the Japanese people. There can be no normalisation of diplomatic ties with North Korea unless the abduction issue is resolved.”

Advertisements appearing in major newspapers recently said: “We will not give up getting the people back.”

“Japan has painted itself into a corner now and it is highly unlikely that it will be possible in the near future to generate public support for aid to North Korea,” Horvat observed.

According to Robert Dujarric, director on the Institute of Contemporary Japanese studies at Temple University in Japan, the main worry for Tokyo – apart from missiles and nuclear weapons – is Chinese influence on the peninsula.

The abductees are a domestic issue in Japan, but not a real cause for strategic concern, Dujarric said.

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