Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit Japan, the first stop on her upcoming tour of four nations and her first trip abroad as the U.S.’s top diplomat.
She is expected to discuss efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. But North Korea has failed to come clean about its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s, an issue which still concerns Japan. The abductees were forced to teach North Korean agents to pretend to be Japanese.
North Korea has since released a handful of abductees but the full extent of the kidnappings is unknown.
In 2008, President George Bush removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terror, which strained U.S.-Japan relations as the Japanese still believe that North Korea continues to hold some of their citizens hostage.
Clinton has reportedly said she will “put great emphasis” on resolving the abductee issue.
Tobias Harris is a graduate student in political science at MIT who worked for a member of the Democratic Party of Japan in the national legislature for two years. He writes at “Observing Japan” and describes how the decades-old abductions continue to impact the U.S.-Japan alliance.
A new course on the abductees
Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, told reporters Monday that the government is working to arrange a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the families of Japanese abducted by North Korea.
As MTC wrote of a dinner Secretary Clinton had with Asia experts in advance of her trip, “Members of the Bush Administration Asia team committed a major blunder in failing to speak bluntly to the Japanese government and the Japanese people about the DPRK abductions issue. Having the Yokotas visit with President Bush was a nightmarishly bad decision, setting the stage for an ultimate, inevitable ‘betrayal’ of Japan over the DPRK terrorism delisting.”
I cannot stress this point enough.
The Bush administration, for all of its good work on behalf of the alliance, nearly allowed itself to get entrapped by the Japanese right. Japanese conservatives sought not only to make Japan’s North Korea policy center on the abductees — a goal largely achieved — but also to center US North Korea policy on the abductees. The U.S. was to be the instrument by which the Japanese people would be made whole again, because U.S. pressure in tandem with Japanese pressure would force North Korea to provide a full account of its abductions and release any surviving abductees.
Of course, if the conservatives were really focused on recovering the abductees, they would have been making overtures to China, presumably the only country with enough leverage over North Korea to get it to do anything (which may overstate the extent of Chinese influence in Pyongyang). They did not look to China for help on the abductees. Could that be because they had little interest in recovering the abductees but rather in using the abductees as a lever to take a harder line against both North Korea and China, a way to justify a more hawkish foreign policy?
Similarly, the abductees were also used as a bludgeon against the U.S. Consider that once the US opted to embrace the abductees by scheduling face-to-face meetings with the families for former President Bush and former U.S. Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer, it became difficult for senior US officials — even the vice president — to question openly the Japanese government’s emphasis on the abductees. Naturally some Bush administration officials believed in the importance of abductee issue, but as the about-face on North Korea showed, not everyone believed it, because ultimately the U.S. was able to break the bargain on the abductees and commit to negotiations with North Korea. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, however, was left to take much of the blame for “betrayal,” with the president reassuring Japan even as the U.S. proceeded to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The point is that if the Obama administration is going to rest on symbolic gestures, like meeting with abductee families and taking care to stress the problem at every opportunity, it better be prepared to follow through on those gestures — or be prepared to damage the alliance.
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