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Payback Time: Japan-North Korea Economic Relations
Author: Richard J. Samuels
Published May 25, 2011
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For historical and ideological reasons, relations between Japan and North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) are among the most contentious and mutually distrustful of any in the world today. From Pyongyang’s perspective, Japan’s military alliance with the United States and its history of harsh colonial rule are impediments to normal diplomatic and economic relations. From Tokyo’s perspective, North Korea’s brazen abduction of Japanese nationals during the late 1970s and early 1980s and its flagrant militarism make the DPRK a particularly repellent neighbor. In December 2001, the Japanese coast guard actually fired upon and sank a North Korean spy ship in what was the first incident of Japanese hostile fire since World War II. The two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, a situation that significantly impedes normal intercourse.

Still, after a protracted negotiation conducted in secret by officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro visited Pyongyang in September 2002. Whether this was designed to establish independence from the United States or to distract public opinion from stalled economic reforms, the visit followed a warming of Republic of Korea (ROK)- DPRK relations and was an important effort to get Japan-DPRK relations on track. Koizumi’s initiative was nearly derailed by U.S. government revelations that Pyongyang had begun a secret program to generate highly enriched uranium, violating the 1994 Agreed Framework. The North Koreans subsequently withdrew from the International Atomic Energy Agency and reactivated their Yongbyon nuclear reactor, adding to Japan’s security concerns. Now Pyongyang had programs to build a stockpile of enriched uranium and plutonium. As a result, the Pyongyang Declaration, signed by Prime Minister Koizumi and Chairman Kim Jong-il, was clouded by greater diplo- matic uncertainty than ever.

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