Japan's diplomatic outreach to North Korea a delicate balancing act

Mohamed Ibrahim El-Desouky
Tuesday 26 Sep 2023

Japan has made noteworthy diplomatic overtures towards North Korea in the past two weeks.


Japan presented two proposals to hold a summit between its Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with the aim of resolving the numerous contentious issues between the two nations, notably North Korea's nuclear programme and missile tests.

This marks a significant and unexpected shift in Japan's stance toward Pyongyang, which it views as a major threat to its national security.

The recent proposals, particularly Kishida's speech at the United Nations General Assembly, demonstrate Tokyo's strong diplomatic push to open the tightly sealed doors to North Korea.

Japan seeks to reach an acceptable understanding that preserves their vital strategic interests, eases mutual security concerns, and reduces the intense tension in northeast Asia.

Furthermore, Japan is strengthening its ties with Russia, which supports North Korea and enjoys the latter’s supportive stance on the Russo-Ukrainian war, despite its long-standing disagreements with the United States and the West.

What prompted this Japanese initiative? Will find a receptive ear within the ruling communist regime in North Korea? Are they coordinating with America and South Korea, especially since the three nations have formed a united front against China, North Korea's closest and most prominent ally?

It is no secret that diplomatic channels between North Korea and the international community, particularly its neighbours, have been frozen for several years.

These channels involve bilateral talks between North and South Korea, Japan, and the United States, as well as the six-party mechanism that includes China, Russia, Japan, and America.

This mechanism was initiated in 2003 following North Korea's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with the goal of finding a peaceful solution to the Korean nuclear crisis, an objective that has yet to be realized.

These diplomatic channels have been replaced by a deluge of warnings, threats, and tensions among all concerned parties.

The risks stemming from North Korea's insistence on its nuclear and missile programmes have escalated. This has occurred against the backdrop of heightened competition between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific and the US-Russia rivalry, with each side fortifying itself behind supporting alliances, reminiscent of the Cold War era.

In light of this deteriorating and complex situation, Japan finds itself compelled to take the initiative in the hopes of reviving stalled diplomatic efforts.

The goal is to coax North Korea into engaging in dialogue and to pave the way for further breakthroughs in breaking down the iron curtain surrounding the Korean Peninsula's northern part. This approach aims to dispel the spectre of war that constantly looms over northeast Asia.

Japan has, naturally, coordinated in advance with its allies, the United States and South Korea, or at least informed them of its rapprochement with North Korea.

This initiative is driven by Tokyo's belief that its immediate security interests require resolving the situation with Pyongyang through diplomacy rather than force, which would leave everyone as losers, not to mention the economic and trade losses that would negatively impact our crisis-ridden world.

Unofficially, Japanese circles acknowledge that Japan must act independently, without being bound by collective frameworks with the US and South Korea, to safeguard its core interests.

Washington and Seoul have been unsuccessful in enticing North Korea or softening its hardline positions. North Korea, notably, ignored a previous invitation from Washington for a summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Kim Jong Un.

Additionally, Japanese decision-makers are convinced that there is inconsistency in US foreign policy towards North Korea, which directly impacts Japan's interests.

Hence, they fear that they might miss opportunities that could be seized if North Korea returns to the negotiating table, offering concessions in exchange for economic and financial benefits to overcome its mounting economic difficulties.

Japan is motivated to take this individual action primarily due to two pressing concerns. First, Japanese citizens perceive an ongoing daily threat as North Korea continues its missile tests, often aimed towards Japan, in addition to its stockpile of nuclear weapons and other unconventional weaponry.

The second concern revolves around the earnest efforts by Japan to determine the fate of its citizens who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1980s and 1990s. These abductees were covertly transported to North Korea, and their families continue to implore the Japanese government to exert more effort in determining whether they are still alive or deceased.

In conclusion, the judgment on Japan's moves and its outcomes ultimately hinges on North Korea's response. As of now, North Korea has not indicated any willingness to accept or consider Japan's proposal, leaving the matter hanging.

North Korea seems to revel in a sense of pride and disregard towards Japan and its regional neighbours, believing that everyone is seeking its favour while it remains deliberately aloof.

Nonetheless, this independent action by Japan should not be misconstrued as a divergence or distancing from its close alliance with the United States and South Korea.

Japan acts based on the principle that necessity permits actions that may not align precisely with US policies, despite their strong and enduring ties.

North Korea clings to the notion that its possession of formidable deterrence capabilities instills fear in both near and distant nations. It believes it can deliver painful and agonizing blows to those it perceives as enemies and arch-rivals, including Japan, the former colonial ruler of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Japan is allied with the US and cooperates to contain North Korea, with the aim of overthrowing its communist regime, led by the Kim dynasty. North Korea has isolated itself from the outside world, rarely receiving foreign visitors or allowing foreign media to approach its borders, let alone interact with ordinary citizens.

Furthermore, North Koreans insist that any dialogue with them must occur on their terms. They demand clear and unequivocal assurances that the United States will refrain from conducting military exercises they view as targeting their country.

They also insist that the US will not conspire to topple the Kim dynasty, as it did with the Baathist regime in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

They insist that their nuclear programme remains beyond the reach of American and Western interference and, more importantly, outside the purview of international oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In their view, this nuclear programme represents their struggle and effort to join the nuclear club of major powers, and they have no intention of relinquishing it.

Most significantly, North Korea is convinced that its alliance with China and Russia during these challenging and delicate times provides a protective umbrella against American betrayal. It believes that it cannot stand alone against the world's mightiest power and is backed by two major forces that shield it from American treachery.

Currently, the ball is in North Korea's court, and it will determine whether it aims for the goal or kicks it outside the field. Japan, on the other hand, can only wait and watch, a wait that may be prolonged before receiving a satisfactory response to its generous offer to Pyongyang.

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