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North Korea

Why North Korea doesn’t want to talk to Japan about denuclearisation

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for a summit, but new images cast doubt over the sincerity of Kim Jong-un’s pledge to scrap its nuclear arsenal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 5:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 10:32pm

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needs to cut Kim Jong-un some slack if he wants to hold diplomatic talks with the young leader, analysts said, as new images cast doubt over the sincerity of North Korea’s pledge to scrap its nuclear arsenal.

North Korea’s deliberate snubbing of Japan in the recent bout of high-level talks reached new heights on Tuesday when at the UN in Geneva, the North’s diplomat Ju Yong-chol warned its neighbour not to get involved in the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

Ju was speaking on the first day of the Conference on Disarmament after Japan and other nations called on Pyongyang to follow through with its promise to scrap its nuclear arsenal.

Japan would be “well advised to refrain from poking into others’ business”, Ju said.

Kim promised to “work toward” denuclearisation at a landmark summit in Singapore earlier this month with US President Donald Trump, but the meeting failed to clearly define the process or produce a specific timeline.

Adding to the scepticism following the June 12 Trump-Kim summit, recent satellite imagery showed that not only were operations continuing at the North’s main Yongbyon nuclear site, it was also carrying out infrastructure works, according to the respected 38 North website.

“Commercial satellite imagery from June 21 indicates that improvements to the infrastructure at … Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre are continuing at a rapid pace,” it said.

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It noted “continued operations” at the North’s uranium enrichment plant and several new installations at the site – including an engineering office and a driveway to a building housing a nuclear reactor.

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But continued operations at the site “should not be seen as having any relationship with North Korea’s pledge to denuclearise”, it added.

Tokyo has been an outspoken ally of the US and opponent of the North’s nuclear programme, and proposed an Abe-Kim summit later this year to address the issues of nuclear security and the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea to train its spies.

Pyongyang, however, has no interest in discussing the abductees and state media this week reiterated the government’s long-held line that Japan must first apologise for its years of colonial rule of the peninsula if it wants any say in the denuclearisation process.

“Japan is legally and morally obliged to make a sincere apology and reparations,” the Korean Central News Agency said in an editorial.

“Japan can never evade this responsibility.”

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Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, said Abe’s insistence on a full accounting for the abductees “has ticked Pyongyang off to the point that they see Japan as playing the role of the spoiler, just as they did in the six-party talks until they ground to a halt in 2007”.

“There is a lot of historical baggage, of course, but the North has seen Abe go to Washington for talks with Trump and encourage him to raise the abductions, so they look at Abe as a saboteur who even wants these talks to fail.”

It does not help Tokyo’s position that Abe has repeatedly reiterated that maximum pressure and strict sanctions are still the best way to bring Pyongyang to heel – actions that proved effective in bringing Kim to the negotiating table.

Kingston said Kim is sending Abe a clear message of where he considers Japan in the geopolitical hierarchy by first meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Trump, as well as sending a trusted lieutenant to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin.

“It’s about putting Abe in his place and those meetings are designed to demonstrate that if Abe wants a seat at the top table and a say in shaping negotiations instead of being on the outside, then he is going to have to cut the North some slack on the abductions issue,” he said.

But Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, said Abe does have a degree of leverage over the North.

“Trump has reiterated that the US has no intention of providing economic assistance to the North and South Korea is on the brink of a recession and is in no position to deliver the vast amounts of aid that Pyongyang requires, so Japan will be important to the North,” he said.

“And that is why I dismiss the anti-Japanese propaganda that is still coming out from the North.”

Shimada noted that North Korean media “denounced” John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, and Mike Pence, the tough-talking vice-president, immediately before the Trump-Kim summit.

“It’s their usual tactic, but the US did not flinch and Japan must do exactly the same,” he said. “And that is why I am sure that the behind-the-scenes talks that I know are going on now will lead to a summit between Abe and Kim before too long.”