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Japan, North Korea hint they are ready for high-level talks

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
February 27, 2024

Japan wants the return of its nationals abducted by North Korea, while Pyongyang is looking for sanctions relief. However, big hurdles remain to opening lines of communication.

Kim Jong Un behind a desk with microphones
Talks would come amid concerns over North Korea's growing weapons programImage: KCNA/REUTERS

Japan and North Korea are inching towards a meeting of their two leaders, with Kim Jong Un and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida looking to achieve a breakthrough in a relationship that has been icy for decades.

Kishida told Japan's parliament earlier this month that he wants to hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim, and is personally overseeing high-level discussions with Pyongyang.

A meeting would be the first between the leaders of the two nations since former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi travelled to Pyongyang in May 2004 and convinced Kim Jong Il, the father of the present North Korean leader, to release five Japanese nationals who had been abducted by the North's spies.

Nearly 20 years later, Kim Jong Un and Kishida will be hoping to wring concessions out of each other to bolster their own political positions, although analysts caution that many hurdles still have to be cleared before the two men can meet face to face.

Kishida is hoping to make progress on the fate of yet more Japanese nationals who were kidnapped by the North in the 1970s and 1980s, with 12 still officially listed as being held in the North.

Campaigners in Japan insist the real figure is well over 100. Kishida appears to be calculating that a breakthrough on the abductions – and possibly even the return of some of them – will improve his standing in the public opinion polls ahead of a general election within the next year.

Direct two-way communications

Such a meeting could also lead to more direct communications between Tokyo and Pyongyang and, potentially, give Japan and its allies greater insight into Kim's intentions for his growing nuclear arsenal and expanding missile capabilities.

What's behind new tensions between North and South Korea

"This would be an opportunity for Kishida to have the spotlight on him as a national leader on the global stage and making diplomatic advances for Japan, instead of constantly being criticized over the financial scandals that his party is caught up in at home at the moment," said Robert Dujarric, co-director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

"Realistically, some of those abductees are dead and are never coming back and Kishida may hate what North Korea did to those people, but it could be of use to have that direct line to Kim," Dujarric told DW.

Kishida's efforts to engage Kim have won the support of families of the missing, with a meeting of an association of relatives in Tokyo on Sunday passing a resolution that it would support Japan lifting sanctions on North Korea if it would mean the abductees were permitted to return to Japan.

Kim's ambitions for any meeting are starkly different, said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor of international relations specializing in North Korea at Tokyo's Waseda University.

"The North's position is complicated,” he said. "They are very much hoping that [Donald] Trump wins the US election in November as they hope that he will lift some of the sanctions on them, but before that they want to show that they are able to negotiate with Japan and to build up a relationship with a country that they had always said is hostile to the North.

Relaxing Japan's sanctions?

"If they can build a new relationship with Japan, that might mean Kishida will lift some of the Japanese sanctions on Pyongyang,” he said. Arguably the easiest restriction to scrap would be for Japan to allow a North Korean ferry that used to operate between Wonsan on the east coast of North Korea and the northern Japan city of Niigata to resume voyages.

Dujarric believes there is a more sinister motive behind the North being open to the idea of Kishida travelling to Pyongyang.

"It is always possible that South Korea does not like the idea of the Japanese prime minister speaking with the North," he said, suggesting that Kim may be attempting to drive a wedge between Japan, South Korea and the US, which only last year committed themselves to even greater security cooperation to face down the challenges that are emerging in northeast Asia.

To avoid distrust in Seoul, Kishida should meet President Yoon Suk-yeol very soon after any visit to Pyongyang to reassure the South Korean leader of Japan's commitment to the three-way partnership and the security of the South.

The US, on the other hand, has already stated that it would "welcome" dialogue between Japan and North Korea and that Washington will continue its own efforts to communicate with Pyongyang, even though such initiatives have been firmly rebuffed by the North.

US, Japan and South Korea to deepen security ties

Support from Kim's sister

Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader's sister, indicated that the regime in Pyongyang would be open to the idea of talks to improve relations with Japan, although she did indicate that the issue of the abductions and the North's nuclear weapons stockpiles would not be "obstacles" to better relations if raised by the Japanese side. 

Shigemura believes that does not mean that the topics are entirely beyond discussion as "obstacles can be moved," but it will take some diplomatic maneuvering by Kishida to make progress on the issues that are of most importance to Japan.

And while both Japan and North Korea seem at present keen for their leaders to meet in person, Dujarric is not optimistic that any face-to-face discussions will lead to a breakthrough.

There is not enough trust and too many conflicting imperatives for a deal, he said, adding "I doubt anything will happen as a result of this initiative."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea