In the mosaic of events that are shaping the political situation in North-East Asia (NEA) an event occurred at the end of October which at first glance does not appear to be worthy of any special attention.
But in fact, not only does it illustrate the peculiarities of this situation, it is also a significant action contributing to its formation. In particular, it sheds light on the important nuances in the system of relations linking all three leading regional players, i.e. the USA, China and Japan.
We are talking about the visit to Pyongyang on 28-29 October this year by a delegation of the Japanese government, headed by the Director General of the Asian and Oceania Affairs Bureau, Junichi Ihara, of the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
The subject of Mr Ihara’s negotiations with his North Korean colleagues on the generic theme of the “abducted persons” would also appear to be of little significance. It concerned the fate of 12 out of 17 Japanese citizens who were abducted by the North Korean intelligence agencies (five of these returned to Japan in 2002). These Japanese citizens were allegedly used to prepare future Korean agents (providing language and cultural training) who were intended for work in Japan.
The first thing that draws attention to itself is the very visit to North Korea by officials from Japan. Prior to this, the last visit made to North Korea (in 2004) was from the then Prime Minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi.
At the time, this step by the Japanese government was already being viewed with suspicion not only by Seoul but also Washington and Beijing. It provided important evidence of Japan’s process of “normalization” – a multi-faceted phenomenon, one of the main parts of which is the process of Tokyo’s gradual emergence from the Washington’s shadow onto the international arena.
However, the second half of the last decade saw the beginning of a general deterioration in the political situation of NEA, which has also affected the Korean Peninsula. This has been caused by a number of factors. One of these is the acceptance by other regional players that China is turning into a global power and making threats to their national interests and security.
After Lee Myung-bak was elected to the post of President of South Korea (the Republic of South Korea, RK) in 2008, the process of inter-Korean dialogue was broken off, there were a number of armed incidents on the peninsula and North Korea renewed nuclear missile testing.
All this hindered further development of relations between Japan and North Korea. But the most noteworthy feature was probably the fact that contradictions between South Korea and Japan, which had been building up for some time, now came to the surface.
One direct consequence of this second tendency, which was important for the USA, was the improbability of creating a three-way political alliance between the USA, Japan and RK, which had been hatching for a long time. A second consequence was the fact that China became more active in the RK.
In these circumstances Japan’s and North Korea’s attempts to renew mutual ties, which had been broken off ten years earlier, seemed perfectly natural. The groundwork for this was only laid in 2012 by Mongolia, which had maintained good relations with both Koreas.
This groundwork was later relocated to Shenyang in the north-east of China. A series of meetings held in this city during the spring of 2014 proved to be particularly productive.
They were valued in Japan as a positive interim result towards renewing negotiations with the North Korean government for the purpose of restoring bilateral diplomatic relations. Discussions were started on the visit to North Korea by the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe.
At this point, Japan’s “big brother” lost his patience. What followed was an announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry that “Japan’s unilateral initiatives are inappropriate. The USA and Japan are allies, we would therefore ask Tokyo to consult with us in advance on all initiatives and intentions in negotiations with Pyongyang”.
Discussions were held in Tokyo between the USA’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, and Mr Ihara at the beginning of October 2014. To judge from the commentaries in the Japanese media, the framework for further contacts between Japan and North Korea should now be limited to those elements that are of immediate importance for American politics in the region of the Korean Peninsula.
The contents of these contacts should not contradict, firstly, the task of establishing close military and political ties within the USA-Japan-South Korea triangle (the solution of which, as it turns out, the Americans are not turning down) and, secondly, the goal of disarming North Korea of nuclear weapons.
In this respect, it is worth noting that, in concluding his discussions in Pyongyang, Mr Ihara demonstratively emphasized the fact that “the problem of the abducted persons is the most important problem” for Japan in its relations with North Korea.
It creates the impression that an obligatory ritual is being performed, the chief subject of which is the USA. However, its performance again and again will hardly dispel Washington’s suspicions concerning the real goals of Japan’s politics with respect not only to North Korea but to other players in NEA as well.
Japan’s manoeuvres in North Korea are viewed no less suspiciously in the RK. After the President of the RK, Park Geun-hye, came to power in 2013, both sides at first tried to ease the tension in their relations at least to some degree but with no particular success.
It was not until September 2014 that discussions were held between the Japanese ambassador and the Foreign Minister of the RK, lasting twenty minutes, which ended with the announcement in the most general terms of their intention to develop mutual relations “directed at the future” and “as quickly as this is possible”.
One month prior to this, Park Geun-hye had approached the Japanese government with a proposal to use the 50-year-old anniversary of the formation of bilateral diplomatic relations with Japan (which occurs in 2015) as “a starting point for a new era” in their relations.
This announcement was made the day before the date of the end of the war in the Pacific accepted in Japan (15 August 1945), which has been marked in recent years by visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by members of the government (and not infrequently the Prime Minister). The South Korean President, so it would seem, has not lost hope that her proposal might prevent the ritual from being performed for the umpteenth time “in the symbol of Japanese militarism”.
On the following day, however, the shrine was visited by two ministers, and the Prime Minister himself sent ritualistic tributes. Hence, the future of relations between Japan and the RK is once again shrouded in mist. Just like the prospects for the three-way alliance under the patronage of the USA and with the participation of both allies of America.
What stands out is the smoothness with which the visit by the Japanese delegation to Pyongyang was organized. The only unevenness was caused by the fact that on the morning of the 29 September a correspondent with the Tokyo radio broadcasting corporation TBST was not allowed to get into a car with representatives of the foreign media, who had been sent to the place of the talks to report on the opening procedure of the day’s session.
In connection with this, a North Korean official representative announced that, in her report of the previous evening on the progress of the talks, the correspondent had used “inappropriate expressions”. In fact, connoisseurs of any piece of “spicy” information that in one way or another concerns North Korea have little else to go on.
Finally, it remains to be pointed out that this by no means mundane event has occupied a prominent place in Russian news agencies and publications. Journalistic hunch that it might be significant did not let Russian reporters down.
So no one could fail to notice the usual supply of informational garbage, evidently churned out, just like before, by the South Korean fighters on the propaganda front. Reports appeared the day before the visit and concerned rumors of mass executions of North Korean party functionaries.
We should be thankful, though, that this time it passed off without the “grenade-launchers/flame-throwers/mortars and packs of dogs” that usually accompany the unfortunate victims of the bloody North Korean regime.
Vladimir Terekhov, leading researcher of the Center for Asia and the Middle East of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.