Japan-DPRK Progress Stalls...

Japanese Press in Pyongyang last week, covering the visit of Japanese coming to visit the graves of family members in North Korea

Japanese Press in Pyongyang last week, covering the visit of Japanese coming to visit the graves of family members in North Korea

The question is, "is it a grinding halt or a temporary slowdown?"

For the past year, Japan and DPRK looked to be on the way towards repairing a relationship frozen since Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit in 2004. After secret talks that led into formal negotiations, Japan relaxed some of its autonomous sanctions when North Korea agreed to reinvestigate the abductions of Japanese. In the chill of DPRK-China relations, frozen ties with the US and South Korea, this was an perhaps unexpectedly bright spot in Korea’s foreign relations. But it seems that progress has stalled again.

Reports by Japanese press indicate that discussions over the preliminary abductee report have broken down. By all indications, the content of the preliminary report, which will be delayed, will not please the Japanese public. It appears that no new information regarding the officially recognized abductees will be released. Japan has signaled that it will reject the results of the preliminary investigation. North Korea has emphasized that full investigations will take a year to complete.

Questions loom on how this breakdown came about. A likely reason could be North Korean displeasure with the degree to which Japan is willing to provide aid in exchange for progress on the abductions issue. In the weeks leading up to this, North Korea signaled desire for further measures from Japan including the delivery of humanitarian aid. On the high end of numbers, North Korean has always tried to secure “war reparations” from Japan, supposedly with some proposals calling for up to $20 Billion.

Or perhaps the powers that be concluded that damaging revelations are not worth the benefits that would accrue from progress here. There are elites who surely believed that the admission of the abductions in the 2000s was a mistake. With Kim Jong Un absent from any public appearances for the last two weeks, possibly from ill health or other more mundane reasons, one wonders if that has impacted the nature of the preliminary report.

North Korea has not closed the door entirely. The reinvestigation supposedly goes on. But the question is whether both sides can agree on a deal. It is truly disappointing to see this happen, and the prospect for improved Japan-DPRK relations, for a moment tantalizingly close, once again seems distant. It is now up to decision-makers in Pyongyang and Tokyo to see if they can can find an acceptable agreement during the delay. If not, one or both governments might just decide the status quo will do.