Contemporary Japanese-North Korean Relations: A History

A North Korean actions are often discussed in the media in ahistorical terms, ignoring historical memory and the complicated regional security environment. While the major players for the DPRK in the region are the US and China, its relations with Japan should not be ignored.
14 July 2014


North Korean actions are often discussed in the media in ahistorical terms, ignoring historical memory and the complicated regional security environment. While the major players for the DPRK in the region are the US and China, its relations with Japan should not be ignored. This essay describes a relationship that is dependent on regional actors and hamstrung by the ‘history problem’ and the ‘abduction issue' lobby in Japan. A DPRK in transition and with a new leadership does provide a possible, if unlikely, window of opportunity for improving bilateral relations.


Discussions in the mainstream media on the behaviour of North Korea towards South Korea, Japan and the United States tend to either be ahistorical, or ignore the North Korean account of Japanese imperialism and the Korean War. Complicating the picture further is the persistent usage of, often rhetorically charged, language describing the DPRK regime as “paranoid”, “unpredictable,” “irrational,” “belligerent,” “fascistic” and prone to “bellicosity” and “wanton” violence, despite the contested nature of these descriptions within the academic research on the region.(1,2,3,4) This explains how, for example, the focus on North Korea over the past two decades has centred on its nuclear program and its aggressive language and military manoeuvres towards South Korea, ignoring the threat posed by the US naming it a part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ along with the US-ROK joint military exercises.

The Korean Peninsula has long served as a gateway to the Asian continent for Japan and, therefore, the Chinese people, goods and civilisation. The Paekche Kingdom from southwest Korea developed strong relations with Japan, particularly, from the beginning of the 4th Century to the 7th Century, and provided “the Japanese court with the lettered and technical personnel needed for the introduction of the advanced civilization of the continent. In return, the Japanese ruler provided military support in the form of arms and troops to assist Paekche in its ongoing struggles with its Korean neighbours.”(5)

Japanese relations with North Korea (since its inception following the end of the Second World War) on the other hand, are discontinuous, with periods of engagement on the political and economic levels, to periods of estrangement and turmoil. The relationship, in general, is characterised by mutual mistrust and animosity that has its roots in the 20th Century. Until the start of the DPRK nuclear crisis in 1993, normalisation with the DPRK was not a priority for Japan. Attempts at normalisation from the early 1990s onwards have been frustrated by: North Korea’s insistence on an apology from Japan, and compensation for its atrocities during its colonisation of Korea (1910-1945); the politicization in Japan of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s; DPRK’s fear of the US-Japanese security alliance and American military presence in the region and hostility towards the US, Japan and South Korea; and divisions between China, ROK, Japan and the United States in dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Japanese Colonisation and the Korean War

Understanding contemporary Japanese-DPRK relations requires the discussion to be situated in the historical context of Japanese colonisation of Korea and the Korean War (1950-1953). Bruce Cumings, a historian of the Korean War and Japanese colonisation of Korea, describes the Japanese occupation of Korea as “akin to the Nazi occupation of France, in the way it dug in deeply and gnawed at the Korean national consciousness ever since.”(6)

While the ‘pacifist’ nature of Japan’s constitution set limits on Japanese militarisation, Japanese security was provided by the United States, with the signing of the United States-Japan Security Treaty in 1951-later amended in 1960- which was originally set up to codify “US commitment to defend Japan against external aggression, in exchange for the US use of Japanese military bases for Japan’s defence and the peace and security of the Far East.”(7) The United States saw the Korean civil war through its Cold War prism and Japan, firmly under the US security umbrella, played a crucial non-combatant role. Japan provided the base for the headquarters of the unified structure of the multinational forces fighting on the Republic of Korean side - the United Nations Command (UNC) – and most of the “UN forces fighting in Korea spent a large part of their duty in Japan.”(8)

For Cumings, the “beginning” of the Korean War lay in the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo in northeast China in 1932 by the Japanese.(9) The guerrilla movement resisting the Japanese had a significant Korean presence and Kim Il-Sung, the first leader of the DPRK, is considered by some as the leader of one of the guerrilla groups. Kim Il-Sung’s involvement in the guerrilla resistance against the Japanese imperial forces is the legitimising narrative used by the DPRK leadership in the establishment and continuing rule by the Kim’s family even as the nature of Kim Il-Sung’s involvement in the guerrilla groups is contested in academia. Therefore, in this understanding of history, the anti-Japanese sentiment in the North Korean regime has deep roots that stretch further back than the end of its colonisation of the Korean Peninsula in 1945.

DPRK-Japanese relations during the Cold War

Even during the Cold War, Japan considered normalising relations with North Korea as being important in terms of having a secure regional environment. However, the priority was to maintain strong relations with the United States and develop cooperative relationships with both China and South Korea.(10) Furthermore, Japan’s security treaty with the US meant that it was bound into the “US containment strategy vis-à-vis North Korea, obligated as it was, to provide bases for the US to use for projection of its military power into the Korea Peninsula.”(11)

There were periods, particularly in the early 1970s, when there was a thaw in DPRK’s relationship with both Japan and South Korea. Economic realities meant that, “despite its ideology of self-reliance,” North Korea needed to open up economically to achieve its industrialisation and modernisation targets.(12) The incentive on the Japanese side was the need to diversify its access to raw materials as its economy continued to grow. In 1972, a Japanese delegation visited North Korea and signed a memorandum that expanded trade links. In 1972, Japan became North Korea’s third highest trading partner. These improvements in relations were never long-lasting, with engagement punctuated with periods when schemes and contracts agreed upon were abandoned and unfulfilled. The cycle of engagement and estrangement continued throughout the Cold War.

Post-Cold War relations

The end of the Cold War brought about changes to the security structure in the region, with a reduction to the Soviet presence in the region along with the “perceived military decline of US military commitment to the region.”(13) The changing landscape in the region, and North Korea’s missile launch over Japan in 1998, meant normalising relations with the DPRK became Japan’s priority in its security policy. However, normalisation attempts throughout the 1990s proved difficult for both sides as, while the reduction of Soviet and US power brought about a greater need for regional cooperation on security policies, it also “reactivated a series of bilateral and multilateral disputes between the states of East Asia, which had previously been suppressed under the weight of their competing military blocs during the Cold War.”(14)

The ‘abduction issue’

Compounding the ‘history problem’, the shifting regional security dynamic and aggressive North Korean behaviour was the ‘abduction issue.’ According to the Japanese government, 17 Japanese citizens were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s (although there may be more).(15) While there are many theories, like using the abductees as language trainers or for revolutionary cells, the motives for these abductions are not clear. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, an East Asian historian, describes the period when these abductions are said to have taken place as a time of change and regional instability:

In the ROK, President Park Chung-Hee was assassinated in 1979, and in 1980 demonstrations in the South Korean city of Gwangju against Chun Doo-Hwan regime were violently suppressed, resulting in many hundreds of deaths. In 1983, a bomb attack in the Burmese capital Rangoon, aimed at visiting President Chun Doo-Hwan, killed seventeen people, including senior South Korean government figures as well as Burmese bystanders; and in 1987, 115 passengers were killed when a South Korea airlines plane was blown up in Baghdad. Mystery still surrounds some aspects of these two terrorist incidents, but both were widely believed to have been planned and instigated by North Korea, and to mark a phase of violent action by the DPRK against its perceived enemies. Both also led to the imposition of limited and temporary sanctions on North Korea by Japan.(16)

With pressure from the public, media and the ‘abduction lobby’, the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea has become the dominant bilateral policy issue.(17)

The Pyongyang Declaration

George W. Bush branded North Korea a ‘rogue state’ under the US ‘war on terror’ following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. Aside from the American military threat, the North Korean economy was facing shortages in energy and food supplies that were compounded by a series of natural disasters. For the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi this seemed like a window of opportunity to try and resolve the ‘abduction issue.’ Leaders from both sides met in Pyongyang on 17 September 2002 and signed the Pyongyang Declaration that recognised “shared recognition that establishing a fruitful political, economic and cultural relationship between Japan and the DPRK through the settlement of unfortunate past between them.”(18) The positivity that came from the signing of the declaration dissipated in October with the DPRK regime revealing that 13 Japanese nationals had been abducted by North Korea and eight of the abductees had died. North Korea agreed to send the five remaining abductees temporarily who returned to Japan on 15 October 2002. On October 24th, the Japanese government announced the returning abductees would resettle in Japan permanently. While the North Korea regime accused Japan of reneging on agreement, the Japanese public “was angered by the revelation of the death of eight Japanese abductees and North Korea’s less-than-full accounting of the circumstances of their demise.”(19)

After 20 months without any further negotiations, Prime Minister Koizumi visited Pyongyang again on 22 May 2004 to reaffirm the Pyongyang Declaration, announcing an extension of aid packages and brought back family members of two of the returned abductees. Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean leader, on the other hand, affirmed North Korea’s commitment to eventual denuclearisation through the Six-Party Talks.

The nuclear crisis and the Six-Party Talks

The nuclear crisis started in 1993 when the DPRK threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). President Bill Clinton and the leadership in Japan and ROK at the time believed in engagement and dialogue, and ensuing negotiations resulted in the signing of the Agreed Framework by the US and North Korea in October 1994. According to the Agreed Framework, North Korea would halt its nuclear program, the two countries would take steps at normalising relations; in return, North Korea was to receive aid.(20)

The second nuclear crisis can be said to have started when the Bush administration accused Kim Jong-Il of reneging on the Agreed Framework in 2002, claiming North Korea had a covert nuclear weapons program. Unlike Bill Clinton in the 1990s, the Bush administration refused to deal with the DPRK regime and declared it to be a part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’ North Korea, on the other hand, accused the US of not honouring its obligations from the Agreed Framework and withdrew from the NPT in 2003.

From 2003 until 2009, six rounds of talks took place between North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States to find a negotiated settlement to the crisis. In 2009, the Six-Party talks broke down, after the talks were unable to resolve any major issues regarding the DPRK’s ‘nuclear deterrent’ and its attempts at a conclusive peace treaty with the United States.

Divisions between the ROK, China, Japan, the United States and Russia over strategies to deal with North Korea have been a crucial stumbling block in finding solutions. The reasons for the divisions vary from historical enmities between the actors to differing national interests. North Korea has used “gaps in the perceptions and interests of major power supporters” like China and the (former) Soviet Union, along with playing off the United States and China against each other as a means to survive with independence.(21) This is possible because North Korea knows that “China continues to view US motives on the Korean Peninsula with mistrust, while the United [Sates] follows a multitrack policy that involves both cooperation and hedging against” growing Chinese power in the region.(22)

Victor Cha, an academic former advisor to the Bush Administration on North Korea, argues that all sides now believe that there is very little chance of a negotiated settlement to the nuclear crisis now with the US, ROK and Japan choosing “a policy of containment and isolation” while pressurising the regime to make concessions.(23)

Japanese-DPRK relations in 2014 and prospects for the future

Kim Jong-Un’s ascent to the DPRK leadership following the death of his father in 2011 has been seen by some as an opportunity to engage with the North Korea regime. After the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) historic election victory in 2009, they were keen to find solutions to the diplomatic tensions with North Korea. There were signs of moderate improvement in relations from the end of 2011 to September 2012 with low to mid-level negotiations between Japanese and North Korean officials.(24)

The 2012 electoral victory for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan brought Shinzo Abe back as the prime minister. Sebastian Maslow, a political scientist focusing on Japan-DPRK relations, argues that Shinzo Abe, a key supporter of the ‘abduction lobby’, coming back to power “and the most recent missile and nuclear tests by North Korea have diminished hope for progress in the near future”.(25)

Officials from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) speak privately of the politicisation of the abduction issue. MOFA officials describe the issue as being “overplayed” and having a “life of its own,” trapping Japanese politicians into a “vicious cycle,” preventing Japan from making serious attempts at normalising relations with North Korea.(26)

In the regional context, China and the United States are the two countries that matter the most to Pyongyang. While the Chinese rhetoric towards the North Korean regime has hardened, the leverage China has over Pyongyang is often overestimated. In the United States, it was expected that Barack Obama’s administration would favour engagement and dialogue with North Korea; however, it has continued the Bush administration’s policy of containment and isolation.

Meanwhile, Kim Jung-Un is trying to consolidate power and his legitimacy domestically. Yet, the North Korean marketization since the 1990s has meant loosening state control over the economy, a growing entrepreneurial or business class and more openness with the outside world.(27,28) Despite changes to the leadership in the DPRK and Japan and a North Korean political system, economy and society in transition, the prospects for normalisation are bleak. Fundamental issues between Japan and North Korea, like North Korea’s nuclear program, the ‘abduction issue’ and mutual mistrust and animosity remain and the leadership on both sides do not seem willing or able, at present, to try and resolve them.
Copyright © 2014 Al Jazeera Center for Studies, All rights reserved.
*Samee Siddiqui is a freelance journalist based in the UK and an MA graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He specialises in Modern Japanese History and East Asian Politics.


1) V. Cha (2012) ‘North Korea’s relations with the United States and the Rest of the World’, in K. Park and S. Snyder (ed.), North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy and Society (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield), p.261.
2) J. Stanton and S. Lee (2014), ‘Pyongyang’s Hunger Games’, New York Times, March 7, (accessed 8 May 2014).
3) J. Watts (2013), ‘Behind the Curtain of Kim Jong Il’s Regime’, Mother Jones, May/June, (accessed 8 May 2014).
4) ‘The World awaits North Korea’s next irrational step’ (2012), The Australian, April 11,