US Delisting of North Korea Deals Japan "Bush Shock"

Along with plunging stock prices and the faltering United States financial system, the US decision this weekend to remove its terrorism support label from North Korea could go down as the “Bush Shock” in the modern history of Japan.

While the world's attention was mainly focused on the Group of Seven finance ministers and central bankers' meeting in Washington, the George W Bush administration removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism—somehow discreetly. To Japan, it compared unfavorably with the so-called “Nixon Shock” of the 1970s when then-President Richard Nixon, without telling Tokyo, the US’s most important ally in Asia, announced that he was granting diplomatic recognition to Japan’s then-enemy, the Communist regime in China.

The administration appears to have to have taken cover under the world’s financial confusion in order to salvage the deadlocked nuclear disarmament talks. But the decision still gave its closest Asian ally Japan a surprising new twist on the US’s wavering policies toward North Korea in its final months in office, irritating Tokyo by removing, apparently without telling the Japanese, one of Japan’s few weapons in its attempt to discover what happened to many of the Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

In a hastily called press conference Saturday morning, the US state department announced the decision to delist North Korea. Neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill were at what the state department called a “special briefing” on its homepage. Hill visited Pyongyang earlier this month attempt to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff.

President Bush also did not make any official comment, downplaying the agreement with the North and showing Washington’s nervousness on the issue, probably afraid of criticism from conservative lawmakers who already believe that the US has been too gentle with Pyongyang.

The state department said that in the agreement, investigators will have access to all declared facilities at the North Korean nuclear facility in Yongbyon, and based on “mutual consent,” to undeclared sites. But it will be significantly difficult for inspectors to go to any undeclared sites and take material samples in North Korea, which strictly limits the movement of persons and material.

The agreement omitted—or procrastinates in the best of terms— about the issues of existing nuclear weapons; the controversial and problematic highly enriched uranium program; past proliferation activities involving nuclear material and missile technology to Syria and Iran, among other discrepancies.

Pyongyang has recently resorted to its favorite tactic of further brinkmanship to escalate tension and wring concessions. It said it was working on restarting its nuclear plant and dismissed the prospect of being removed from a US terrorism blacklist in return for a disarmament deal. It also once asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watchdog of the UN, to remove its seals and surveillance equipment from the Yongbyon plant.

Pyongyang is fully aware of the current US weakness. With the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating and with 140,000 troops tied up in Iraq, North Korea is not concerned with the threat of military action. This US weakness was crucially different from when the so-called 1994 Agreed Framework accord between the US and North Korea was formed. The US financial crisis also is diminishing US strength as the world’s superpower.

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No matter how much the US administration downplayed the decision, however, it made front page news in every Japanese newspaper on Sunday, all of which reported the disappointment and anger of the families of Japanese victims of North Korea's past abductions.

“I cannot help feeling empty because everything is decided somewhere beyond our reach,'' Shigeo Iizuka, 70, who heads a group of Japanese abductees' families, told reporters.

Teruaki Masumoto, 53, secretary general of the family group, criticized the Japanese government for failing to get the US to keep North Korea on the list and sharply criticized the US decision.

“If it cannot persuade an allied country, how can it persuade North Korea and bring back the abducted victims?'' Masumoto asked. The US delisting, he said, is “an act of betrayal, which fails to provide cooperation to save people’s lives of its allies.”

Yomiuri Shimbun Monday reported that President Bush notified Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso of the US action by phone just 30 minutes before the US state department announcement, and three hours later after Secretary of State Rice actually signed the document, suggesting Washington’s last-ditch attempt to allay Tokyo’s anxiety over its decision.

For the Japanese government, the decision was thus totally unexpected and came as a shock, the Asahi Shimbun reported. Tokyo was kept out of the loop on the negotiation process, the newspaper said.

What galled ordinary Japanese was that the US State Department said, “We welcome the recent progress between Japan and the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to address Japan’s concerns, particularly the abductions issue,” after just Friday, the Aso cabinet actually extended its sanctions on North Korea for another six months beyond the Oct. 13 expiration. Tokyo sees no progress in resolving issues relating to the North's abductions of Japanese nationals.

Tokyo says North Korean agents kidnapped 17 Japanese in the 1970s and 80s; five have returned; 12 are unaccounted for. In September 2002 when then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il for the first time admitted that North Korean agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese nationals. He told Koizumi that eight are dead and the other two never entered the country. The North has remained silent on the remaining two. The abducted Japanese are mostly believed to have been forced to teach Japanese language and culture for its covert operations and subversive activities against South Korea.

Washington put North Korea on the list in January 1988 after the bombing of a South Korean airliner the preceding year. The bombing of the Korean Air airliner en route from Baghdad to Seoul killed 115 persons on board. Many observers believe North Korea aimed to prevent South Korea from holding the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

North Korea still denies any involvement in the terrorist attacks on the airliner, saying it's a malicious fabrication by South Korea and others. But Kim Hyun-hee, one of the North Korean agents who blew up the plane, claimed in her book after she escaped to the south that Kim Jong-il masterminded the 1987 bombing by giving her the order. (Kim Jong-il is also believed to be the mastermind of the 1983 Yangon bombing in Myanmar, which was aimed at then South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan.)

As long as Pyongyang doesn’t repudiate its involvement in the bombing, the US delisting makes little sense to Japan because they do not believe the nature of the North Korean regime has changed.

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The abduction issue

Some Western media have written the confrontation with North Korea over the abductions has left the Japanese government marginalized at six-nation talks to end the communist country's nuclear development program. Some media are starting to call it “Japan Problem.”

From a Japanese perspective, the media have not understood the nature of the issue. Most of the abducted were the socially vulnerable; some were single mothers. Some were cocktail hostesses. A young noodle shop clerk was also among them. They were targeted because they were relatively alienated people in Japanese society, which is why the Japanese government itself continued to ignore the issue for decades.

Japan’s immediate concern is that if Pyongyang fully resumes disablement work at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, Tokyo will be under strong pressure to provide energy assistance to North Korea, as pledged at the six-party talks.

"Japan still needs to interlock the abduction issue with the nuclear issue," Shunji Hiraiwa, an expert on Korea and a professor at the University of Shizuoka, said. "It will ask the other four parties to put pressure on the North in the handling of the kidnapping issue and to create an environment where Japan can provide energy aid to the North."

Kosuke Takahashi, a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun, is a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at letters@kosuke.net.