Japan’s postwar foreign policy has not been awash with Henry Kissingers — persons of status who can secretly or privately negotiate major policy changes with hostile regimes. But if Japan was to have one such person it would be Hitoshi Tanaka, a former deputy foreign minister and the man who secretly negotiated a breakthrough in relations with North Korea, operating through a mysterious Mr. X whom he met repeatedly at secret locations, mainly in China.
The result was the dramatic September 2002 visit to Pyongyang by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which resulted in the return to Japan of five of the 13 Japanese who had been abducted in the 1970s and ’80s by North Korean agents. The visit ended with the equally dramatic Pyongyang Declaration in which Japan promised a range of economic aid to the impoverished North Korean regime, and a normalization of relations.
But Japanese conservatives were not quite as happy about that breakthrough as they could have been. Back in Japan, Tanaka had to suffer an extremist firebombing threat endorsed by the virulently anti-North Korea governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara.
Led by then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the conservative backlash insisted there could be no normalization of relations with North Korea unless Pyongyang accounted not just for the other eight admitted abductees (which Pyongyang insisted had died), but others also missing and feared abducted.
The result has been an ugly stalemate in relations marked by allegations of false DNA tests on alleged charred funeral remains, abductee-related public campaigns and escalating anti-Pyongyang sanctions.
In the midst of all this tumult the seemingly unflappable Tanaka, now retired from the Foreign Ministry and heading the respected Institute for Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd., maintained a steady pose, urging both sides to remain calm and negotiate in sincerity.
But even the Kissingers of Japan, it seems, have their limits. At a recent Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan news conference, the patience seemed to snap. Tanaka criticized North Korea severely for its negotiating tricks and subterfuge. While not exactly closing the door for another Mr. X solution he urged the harshest possible sanctions to force Pyongyang to come to its senses and at the very least agree to freeze its nuclear and IBCM developments. His words, carefully chosen, were that we cannot “discard” the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States and North Korea.
Others use the same language, of course. But Tanaka brings to the party not just a deep experience and understanding of North Korea. He also seems to have had a less than jovial experience of trade negotiations with the U.S. and can be equally critical of U.S. tactics and obstinacy (he ranks the U.S. with North Korea as two of the world’s most “difficult nations”). But this he sees as the problem. Historically the U.S. has only reacted with maximum force when it sees threats to its territory — Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks. The moment North Korea has ICBM capacity able to reach the U.S. mainland, it will see another threat and react. He sees an opportunity window of only a year of so in which both sides can be persuaded to pull back.
Asked whether he had ever seen a similarly dangerous crisis in his foreign policy experience, he said 1994, and also between North Korea and the U.S. He is right. The events of 1994 are the template for what we see today. Pyongyang had pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and was developing a plutonium-producing reactor.
The U.S. was literally hours away from bombing that facility. At the last moment President Bill Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter as his “Kissinger” to negotiate a settlement. This he did with something called the Agreed Framework, also promising aid and normalization of relations in exchange for Pyongyang promises of good behavior, including acceptance of a light-water reactor (KEDO) to replace its plutonium-producing facility.
This agreement also fell apart, with accusations of ill will on both sides (Tanaka was also involved with the KEDO project and has less than happy memories).
And so the ball was set rolling to what we see today. Much informed opinion insists that the U.S. would never attack North Korea because Pyongyang would immediately retaliate by attacking the highly vulnerable South Korean capital of Seoul.
I am not so sure. Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981 and the only retaliation was a few harmless Scud missiles sent in its direction. It did the same to Syria in 2007 and this time there was no reaction.
A surgical attack is the way it is described. Today when the U.S. can direct overwhelming power in almost any direction, would North Korea, which once before suffered brutal U.S. bombing. really want to risk another attack after suffering the surgical treatment?
And if immediately after demolishing some North Korean nuclear or ICBM facility Washington was smart enough to offer Pyongyang all that it really wants — a formal end to the 1950-1953 Korean War, a genuine promise of normalized relations, and an end to threats of regime change — would Pyongyang do more than cry and bluster? I doubt it.