Japan-North Korea Ties: Will There Be an Abe-Kim Summit?
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Photo: AFP)
By Tai Wei Lim

Japan-North Korea Ties: Will There Be an Abe-Kim Summit?

Apr. 05, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Buoyed by the media attention on the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, Japan has been trying hard to lobby for its own bilateral leadership summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Kim has been friendly with the Chinese, South Koreans, Russians and even the Americans but has been rather cold in treatment to the Japanese. In the past, the Japanese always had a conduit to reach Pyongyang through their embassy pipeline in Beijing and the North Korea communities living in Japan. (In total, there are 600,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan. It is difficult to divide this number precisely into pro-North or pro-South Korea constituencies.) There are (pro-North) Korean communities in Japan trading in seafood, running pinball pachinko joints and other legal businesses who have funneled funds to North Korea in the past.

In other words, there were powerful channels within Japan that were used to do active trade and political economic relations with the North Koreans. This channel was recently curtailed due to Tokyo’s responsible observation of United Nations sanctions on its missile and nuclear tests, as a member of the international body. Thus, the strength of the channels has somewhat been dampened. Nevertheless, the allegedly pro-North community also maintains a powerful collective association known as Chongryon. Chongryon is a pro-unification organization. They consider themselves descendants of the Choson (also written as Chosen) people, a pre-Korean War (1950 to 1953) Unified Kingdom that existed before their country was split into two by the Cold War (1947 to 1989) and the colonization period preceding that. Many of them consider themselves part of a stateless diaspora that yearns one day to return to their homeland.

Some of these people consider themselves part of a cultural diaspora with a similar value system and historical worldview. They hold on dearly to their homeland culture which prevents them from being assimilated into mainstream Japanese society. It becomes a Catch-22 situation where they are self-marginalized by maintaining a pro-unification and pro-Pyongyang stance to keeping their culture pure without attempts for integration into the host society. These behavioral traits then become natural barriers for the Japanese authorities’ outreach to them.

Currently, Chongryon ethnic Koreans in Japan are only given permanent residency. They are unable to obtain Japanese citizenships due to conscious rejection of Japanese cultural values and there are no blood-lines with Japanese origins or historical background (i.e. genetic lineage) to qualify for Japanese citizenship. At the same time, there are no opportunities to assimilate into South Korea since the government requires paperwork in the form of a family register. Alternatively, they must produce some other forms of evidence that can trace records back to a unified Choson dynastic state. Given the turmoil faced in modern Korean history, it may be difficult to put together these documents in good condition and order.

The organization was financed by North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, making it suspect in the eyes of some members of the mainstream Japanese society as the two countries had been on the opposite sides of the Cold War. In particular, the organization and its members are displaying portraits of the current and past North Korean leaders. This sits uncomfortably with the Japanese society since Pyongyang has yet to account for kidnapped Japanese citizens and has tested long-range missiles over the airspace of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. North Korea is also technically at war with Japan’s closest allies, the US and South Korea, since no peace treaty was signed at the end of the Korean War and only a ceasefire with a De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) was constructed. In this manner, the limbo status of a ceasefire and theoretical state of war between North and South Koreans also pose difficulties for the pro-North community in Japan.

There are also factions within Chongryon that are advocating the development of an indigenous identity to prevent their community from being sucked into geopolitical rivalries and politics. This group is apparently promoting the development of an indigenous identity arising from a combination of traditional North Korea influences, South Korea hybridization and Japanese cultural localization. They probably represent the more progressive elements within the pro-North groups.

This is a situation which Japanese officials have admitted is approximate to that of a stalemate.

Economically, the ethnic North Koreans or those with sympathies to the North Korean regime residing in Japan also plays a powerful role as they dominate the popular pachinko pinball machines parlours and industry in Japan. This was an important source of revenue for Pyongyang in the past before the Japanese authorities clamped down on the transfer of funds and materials to North Korea from Japan. The testing of Taepodong 1 missile prototype strengthened public outcries and political will to clamp down on the transfer of funds from Japan to North Korea, including funds originating from its ethnic Korean communities.

Some observers would even go as far as to argue that this was the largest source of overseas revenue for Pyongyang, although the shadowy nature of the industry prevents accurate assessment of the contribution. This group of observers also considers the pachinko industry as an informal economy sector that makes Japan unofficially the second largest trading partner of North Korea, after Pyongyang’s principal ally China. The pachinko industry will continue to pose moral hazards and legal as well as economic challenges for the Japanese authorities.

Morally, pachinko has been the subject of public scrutiny due to addiction of large numbers of Japanese to the game. Some mothers were so addicted to the pachinko game that they left their children in the car while playing the machines. This triggered a high profile coverage of pachinko addiction. In addition, there are also allegations of illegal underground economies where pinballs were exchange for cash or expensive gifts in a land where forms of gambling are still illegal. They can only officially exchange pinballs for stuffed toys and other benign gifts.

Consequently, the pachinko parlors have started campaigns to blend into the neighborhoods, in an attempt to remove hardcore impressions of gambling dens. They have utilized popular cultural characters to soften their image in the Japanese society through snazzy marketing blitz. They have redesigned their buildings using pop-art fun designs and hired comedians to market their businesses on television advertisements. They have exerted all possible efforts to blend into the neighborhoods, become less high profile and also practice responsible gaming.

For the Abe-Kim summit however, all efforts to reach out to the North Koreans through the Chongryon (and North Korea sympathetic communities) internal channels and the Beijing diplomatic channels (external) have not been fruitful. This is a situation which Japanese officials have admitted is approximate to that of a stalemate. Besides these two channels, another one that remains is that of the South Korean conduit. But Japan is experiencing some difficulties there too due to recent historical memories issues.

This outcome contrasts with Tokyo’s rather active and successful Northeast Asian diplomacies of late, which have produced some results. Although the outreach to the Russians have met with challenges, but talks between the top leaders are ongoing. Some talks are better than no talks. Tokyo has also improved relations with China which is leveraging Tokyo (and its influence in the Asian Development Bank, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership as well as Tokyo’s backing for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) in its trade tensions with the US. Tokyo has at times also expressed their interest to study the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, promising to enter the fray if the stakeholders eventually strengthen transparency and other best practices. Both countries are enjoying an upturn in relations. Tokyo has also improved its relations with the new Prime Minister of Malaysia, the 94-year old Mahathir Mohamad, who made Tokyo his first overseas trip outside of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The last nut to crack in this hitherto rather successful round of diplomacy by the Abe administration is probably Pyongyang. Tokyo may have to be patient in the face of challenges, such as integrating pro-North elements as well as navigating Pyongyang’s closed nature.

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