High stakes as Japan's Abe eases sanctions over N. Korea abductions

Accounting for citizens kidnapped decades ago is a deeply sensitive issue in Japan, and failure to get results from the North's promise to investigate could cost the prime minister. 

Kyodo News/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, gives a brief statement to reporters following a meeting at his official residence in Tokyo Thursday, July 3, 2014. Abe said Thursday that his government has decided to lift some of its sanction on North Korea.

As the leader of North Korea’s chief benefactor and ally, China, cozied up to South Korea’s president in Seoul this week, the regime in Pyongyang found an unlikely source of diplomatic succor: Japan.

On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the lifting of some unilateral sanctions on North Korea after it reopened an investigation into the fates of several Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean spies in the 1970s and '80s.

Mr. Abe made the gesture after pronouncing himself satisfied that the North Korean committee appointed to search for the “missing” Japanese would conduct the investigation in good faith.

At first glance, Japan appears out of step with the UN Security Council, which has imposed a range of tough sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons tests. For now, though, Japan has convinced the US, South Korea, and China that its fledgling rapprochement with the North is restricted to the abduction issue and that it is not rewarding bad behavior.

In any case, officials in Tokyo insist, the expected removal of restrictions on cash remittances from Japan and the resumption of an occasional ferry service between the two countries will be of minimal benefit to the North Korean economy.

Still, the lifting of sanctions is a victory of sorts for North Korea, now licking its wounds over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to ignore tradition by visiting Seoul before Pyongyang – as clear a sign as any of the Chinese leadership’s irritation with the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.

An otherwise staunch critic of North Korea, Abe is aware that there is substantial political capital to be gained should the North Koreans make demonstrable progress on the whereabouts of at least a dozen Japanese on the official abductee list, although campaigners say the real number of victims is much higher.

The abductions are an incredibly emotive issue in Japan; if anything, voters attach more importance to their resolution than to persuading the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to abandon nuclear weapons.

It would be tempting, but mistaken, to charge Abe with political cynicism amid a dip in approval ratings following his decision this week to lift the ban on Japan’s military fighting alongside allies in overseas wars.

His involvement in the abductions issue stretches back more than a decade. He accompanied Junichiro Koizumi when the then-prime minister met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2002 for a summit that led to the release of five abductees and their families. There was anger, however, in Japan when North Korea said eight of the remaining victims had died and four had never entered the country.

Hopes are rising that at least some of the missing abductees will be found and returned, after Japanese media said North Korea had today handed over the names of at least 10 Japanese living in the country, some of whom reportedly appear on Tokyo’s list of 12 unaccounted-for cold war abductees.

The political stakes are high for Abe. Having invested so much diplomatic capital in the notoriously capricious North, anything less than the return of more abductees to Japanese soil will be viewed as a failure, and one with potentially lasting consequences.

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