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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (November 10, 2004)

Abduction Talks: Will Tokyo Impose Sanctions on Pyongyang?

Martine Dennis (Presenter, BBC News)
Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

Tokyo and Pyongyang have begun their third round of bilateral dialogue focusing on the fates of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents. The discussions are scheduled to last for four days, but may be extended if progress is not made. Will Tokyo impose economic sanctions if negotiations are not productive?

Martine Dennis: The Japanese delegation has arrived in the North Korean capital Pyongyang to begin fresh talks on the fate of a number of Japanese alleged to have been abducted by the North Koreans in the 1970s and 1980s. Officials from the two countries have met twice before already to discuss this issue, but have failed to make progress. Senior members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party are demanding that economic sanctions be imposed if this round of talks also proves unfruitful. The Japanese delegation is expecting North Korea to report on an investigation into the whereabouts of the missing Japanese. The abduction issue remains a major stumbling block to establishing diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea. Pyongyang admits to kidnapping 13 people. In 2002, five of them were allowed to return to Japan for an emotional reunion. North Korean says the remainder have died, while Japan says that at least 15 people were abducted and it wants proof of their deaths. How likely are these talks to be productive?

Sean Curtin, Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia TimesSean Curtin: Realistically, I do not think we can expect any new revelations or much progress. You outlined the situation, but a major hurdle in resolving it is the unpredictability of the North Korean side. In fact, the only thing we can confidently predict about these negotiations is that the North Koreans will be unpredictable. There are three points to watch for, not just the abduction issue. For the Japanese, the abduction problem is the most important aspect, but there is also the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. Both countries are also members of the six-party nuclear talks [the others are China, Russia, South Korea and the United States]. Washington has already signalled that it wants to take a tough stance on nuclear proliferation. So, during these talks, North Korea may give some ground or some signal of what stance it intends to take in the forthcoming six-party talks, while not giving any new information on the abduction issue. The degree of tension created between these two issues is the third factor to watch for. The friction is likely to be quite considerable.

Martine Dennis: So, is the threat of sanctions being imposed on North Korea by Japan an empty one or is that something we could realistically see?

Sean Curtin: I think that is another very interesting point. Firstly, you have to understand the tremendous sense of public anger and impatient in Japan about the way North Korea has dealt with the disclosure of information about the abductions. A lot of politicians have latched onto this mood of frustration and are demanding that economic sanctions be imposed on North Korea. The real problem here is that North Korea has said that if sanctions are imposed then it interprets such an action as a declaration of war. Obviously, Tokyo does not want to get into a state of war with Pyongyang, so for now the talk of sanctions is just a threat. Japanese diplomats have a clear objective, they want to resolve this issue by verifiably determining the fate of the missing abductees. But, as you have indicated, North Korea has not really made any commitment to resolving this pivotal issue. For example, recently, the only new material they have provided has been a blurry video of the medical documents belonging to an abductee, who is said to have committed suicide, and the passport of another they say is dead. It is ridiculous that North Korea has not provided anything more substantial than these snippets of information.

Martine Dennis: What exactly would it take to satisfy the Japanese authorities as to the whereabouts of its missing citizens?

Sean Curtin: Unfortunately, this entire abduction issue has just snowballed with revelation after revelation, so besides providing concrete evidence about the people it has already admitted to abducting, it must also provide solid material on a growing list of other people Tokyo strongly suspects have been abducted. For example, just recently, two new people, Susumu Fujita and Teruko Kase, have been added to the list after photos of them taken in North Korea surfaced. This has considerably raised the level of public anger in Japan and increased pressure on negotiators. It is difficult to know how these different tensions will play out. The North Koreans just don't seem willing to give up any more information. Their mindset appears to be, "Well, we have let five people go, the others are dead, that's it, what more do you want?" Obviously, this approach does not satisfy the families of the missing. Finally, I think that there is a possibility of economic sanctions being imposed in the future, but North Korea's aggressive stance, threatening a declaration of war, may discourage such a move. As I said, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

The above discussion was originally broadcast on BBC World's Asia Today programme on 9 November 2004.

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