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"
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
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
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
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, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.)
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