Reading Japan’s Deal With North Korea

Last week, the Japanese government announced a new deal with Pyongyang to reopen discussions over the fate of the Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by the North. While Seoul and Washington worried that this initiative by Tokyo might undermine trilateral cooperation, this is far from an effort by the Shinzo Abe cabinet to craft a new grand bargain with Kim Jong-un.

Rather, this is a limited effort in response to Pyongyang’s attempts to pursue humanitarian diplomacy with both Seoul and Tokyo. Movement on bilateral talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang is long overdue, and Tokyo—like Beijing and Seoul—may want to develop some leverage in its talks with North Korea.

On Sunday, the Japanese government announced it plans to invite North Korean officials to Tokyo, and it is likely that Tokyo will send Japanese officials, including the Japanese police, to Pyongyang to cooperate in the investigation. Regularizing contact is an important first step in improving Japan’s ability to pursue its primary domestic interest, providing closure for the families of the abductees.

Pyongyang’s willingness to reopen the investigation suggests that they have evidence to offer. But most in Japan, inside and outside of government, remain skeptical and cautious. Japan’s interests remain firmly tied to those of Washington and Seoul, and strengthening trilateral cooperation on North Korea remains Japan’s policy preference. My new article about the significance of the recent agreement, Pyongyang’s New Overtures and Abe’s Diplomacy, can be found on 38 North.

This piece is cross-posted from with permission.