Night Watch

Japan-North Korea: During talks in Sweden, North Korean officials agreed to reopen their investigation into the fate of Japanese nationals whom North Korean intelligence service agents kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s. In return, Japan said it will start lifting its sanctions against the North.

Comment: North Korean agents kidnapped 13 Japanese nationals to be language and culture teachers, but denied Japanese accusations nearly 20 years. In 2002, Kim Chong-il allowed five of the abductees to return to Japan alive. The North said the remaining eight were dead, but without accounting for them. Prime Minister Abe has described resolution of the abductee issue his administration's highest priority.

North Korea also agreed to set up a committee to investigate the fate of other Japanese in the North, including those who accompanied their Korean spouses to the country in the 1950s, and to search for the remains of Japanese who died in North Korea in the final days of World War II.

Comment: As described in the press, the agreement with Japan somewhat resembles US agreements to search for men missing in action since the Korean War. During the past 20 years, the US paid North Korea handsomely to escort US military investigators to sites where the remains of US service personnel might be found.

The Japanese might have made a mistake, however, in agreeing to begin lifting sanctions in return for an agreement to reopen an investigation, rather than actual results. The North is likely to require additional concessions to actually search files or conduct interviews.

Having been stone-walled by China and the US, North Korea has turned to Japan to extort aid and concessions by exploiting the abductees. It wants Japan to lift the travel ban; to allow remittances from North Koreans living in Japan; and to permit North Korean ships to call at Japanese ports. Japan imposed a complete ban on all three activities as punishment for North Korean nuclear testing.

It is a staple of North Korean diplomacy to alternate conciliatory overtures among its former enemies to drive a wedge between allies in order to extort aid. North Korea has leverage issues with each. It applies leverage against one ally when the others refuse to cooperate. Diplomatic "breakthroughs" achieved using this old ploy seldom last long, usually because the North Koreans overreach and fail to keep their promises.

Night Watch

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