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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (May 24, 2004)

Koizumi's Pyongyang Gamble

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

After a dramatic one-day hostage-rescue visit to Pyongyang that transfixed Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi returned to Tokyo with five former child hostages - and a question mark hanging over his own future. Will his gamble pay off politically in Japan and advance the international talks aimed at defusing the Korean nuclear crisis?

Though his brief summit with the reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was partially successful, resulting in the release of five children of former abductees - they returned to Tokyo Saturday night to joyful, tearful reunions - severe criticism from the families of some of the missing abductees threatens to seriously undermine Koizumi and could weaken his hold on the premiership. In a torrent of almost unprecedented criticism of the premier, angry kin of the some of the abductees - the 10 or so still missing - denounced him as "deceitful", "irresponsible" and said he had "betrayed" them.

Koizumi told a news conference in Pyongyang that Japan would provide 250,000 tons of food aid to North Korea as well as medical supplies worth $10 million in the coming months. The country is hungry, its people malnourished and its economy failing. The prime minister explained that this would be distributed through international humanitarian organizations, categorically denying the suggestion that the aid had been offered in exchange for a resolution to the abduction issue. The families of some abductees dismissed Koizumi's assertions, angrily attacking him for rewarding Pyongyang for releasing people it had no right to detain.

Last month Tokyo promised to give North Korea $100,000 in emergency medical relief supplies after a catastrophic train accident that occurred on April 22 in Ryongchon, a town near the country's border with China. To lessen the political impact of all the assistance pledges, the government has stressed that it will not extend regular economic assistance to Pyongyang until bilateral ties are fully normalized.

The surprise visit - no doubt carefully planned in advance - was suddenly announced a week ago as a scandal about the non-payment of obligatory pension premiums by politicians engulfed the government and even threatened the prime minister, who also had missed some payments many years ago. A successful Pyongyang summit was seen as crucial for Koizumi who needs to regain the political initiative, put the pension scandal behind him and strengthen the position of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party before crucial elections to the Upper House of the Diet, or Parliament, on July 12. And advancing the cause of stability and ending North Korea's nuclear program would help.

Before leaving Japan, Koizumi seemed confident that he would be able to gain the release of some of the children of the abductees and make progress on the nuclear arms issue. What he could not have predicted was the enormous backlash from the families of 10 abductees who remain uncounted for. North Korea says eight died and two others never entered the country.

As many as 15 ordinary Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korean spies in the 1970s and 1980s, presumably to assist North Korean agents in learning the Japanese language, idioms and customs.

The Pyongyang summit completely dominated news in Japan on Saturday, getting almost continuous live television coverage. This made the scathing criticisms of Koizumi extremely damaging.

Koizumi addressed his nation from Pyongyang in a short press conference before departing for Tokyo. He highlighted his achievements, concentrating on the release of the five abductee-hostage children, the sons and daughters of kidnapped Japanese returned to Tokyo after his own visit to Pyongyang in September 2002. He focused on the arrangements for a reunion of two other children and their American father, Charles Jenkins, the husband of former abductee Hitomi Soga. They are to meet in the future in Beijing. Jenkins refused to fly to Japan with his children, since he is an army deserter from the Korean war and feared being extradited to America if he went to Tokyo; the statute of limitations on his prosecution runs out in about a year and a half.

Koizumi also announced that the North Koreans would re-investigate the cases of the 10 people Tokyo claims were abducted by North Korea. The prime minister also said progress had been made on the nuclear issue and said the North Korean leader promised co-operation with the international community on the issue.

Back in Tokyo, reaction to Koizumi's words was swift and damning. Even though the parents of the children who were released were overjoyed, they still said they were disappointed and felt very sorry for the other families who had no news of their loved ones. The relatives of abductees unaccounted for were seething with anger.

One after another, they denounced Koizumi in the strongest possible terms, calling him "deceitful" and "irresponsible" and saying he had personally "betrayed" them. They all implied he should resign, creating a crisis for the premier. These comments were replayed several times on national television, lessening the impact of the joyous reunions, the late night return of the five children who rejoined their tearful parents. The reunions were also broadcast live on Japanese TV.

Koizumi made arrangements to speak with the angry relatives of abductees to try to calm them down, but it was unclear how the situation would develop. The prime minister is certainly in a very difficult situation and if he cannot get the relatives to support him, he will be substantially weakened in the run-up to the vital Upper House elections this summer.

The next few days could be make or break for Koizumi as he battles to turn around what could be a public relations disaster.

Before departing, Koizumi knew that he would not be able to completely satisfy the relatives of those eight abductees who Pyongyang claims are dead. The ferocity of the family criticisms probably caught the prime minister off guard, but he must have calculated that this could be neutralized by joyous scenes of family reunions in Tokyo.

An arrangement for Jenkins, the US Army deserter, and his two daughters to meet up with their Japanese mother in Beijing will also conjure up some more emotionally positive images to counteract the negative aspects of the story. In the past, Koizumi has demonstrated an amazing flare for using the media to his advantage. He must be hoping that his skills have not deserted him on this occasion.

Before flying off to North Korea, Koizumi had outlined four objectives:

To secure the release of the families of the five former abductees who returned to Japan in September 2002, after Koizumi's first visit to Pyongyang;

To learn more about the other 10 abductees Pyongyang has said are either dead or never entered the country;

To persuade Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons program;

To set up a framework for normalizing ties between the two nations. Tokyo said relations with Pyongyang could not be normalized until the issue of the abductees was resolved.

The next round of six-party talk on defusing the North Korea nuclear crisis will be held in Beijing in June, though the date has not been set. Besides North Korea and South Korea, the other parties are China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Another vital but unstated goal was to generate positive publicity for the prime minister and his administration in the LDP election campaign and to divert public attention from increasing political problems, such as the pension scandal and unfulfilled promises of reforms on the domestic front. The economy, however, is recovering from its economic doldrums and that should help Koizumi and the LDP.

The drama is unfolding; stay tuned.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 23 May 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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