East Asia Compass

North Korea-Japan Talks and Pyongyang’s Creative Diplomacy

14 Mar, 2024    ·   5871

Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra weighs in on the significance of Kim Yo Jong’s response to Kishida’s statement at the Japanese Diet

North Korea sometimes makes strange gestures that force others to speculate about the intent. In one such move, Pyongyang, which has so far refused to engage in talks with the US and South Korea, suddenly expressed interest in a summit meeting with Japan. It began with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s speech on 30 January, at the 213th session of the Japanese Diet. He said that Japan “will advance high-level consultations” that report directly to him, “with a view to realizing summit-level talks with Chairman Kim Jong Un” and resolve outstanding bilateral issues cited in the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration.

Kim Yo Jong, the vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Kim Jong Un’s sister, responded to Kishida’s statement on 15 February. She said that Pyongyang is open to improving ties with Tokyo, for which both countries could participate in a summit meeting. Kim Yo Jong reportedly “appreciated” Kishida’s speech as “positive,” though she added that Japan should refrain from its decades-old insistence on including the issue of the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea as a precondition. She also added that “the settlement of nuclear and missile issues has nothing to do with the repair of the DPRK-Japan relations,” so as to exclude the issue from the proposed bilateral outreach.

Two important details are worth noting. One, Kim Yo Jong said that the statement was her “personal view” and that she is “not in a position to officially comment on the relations between the DPRK and Japan.” Two, the two issues she asked to be excluded, i.e. on abductions and nuclear issues, deliberately neglected the context of Kishida’s speech. Kishida in fact talked about the possibility of a meeting with North Korea with specific reference to his commitment to resolve the abduction issue. These two details in Kim Yo Jong’s statement indicate North Korea’s willingness to dialogue with Japan, but on its terms only. North Korea has also cleverly taken this approach just to see Japan’s response.

North Korea’s proposal is therefore likely to be a non-starter for Japan. Tokyo is sensitive to the abductions issue—they have a minister who is charged with addressing precisely this issue, a post that is currently occupied by Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi. On 16 February, Hayashi said that Kim Yo Jong’s reference to the abduction issue being “settled” was “totally unacceptable.” It has in fact loomed large in North Korea-Japan relations for more than four decades, and has only been partially resolved from the Japanese point of view. Japan claims that 17 Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korea between 1977 and 1983, but North Korea only admits 13 abductions. North Korea says that they returned all abductees who were still alive to Japan between 2002 and 2004, and sent the remains of those who were deceased by then. Japan claims that the remains are not of those who had been abducted and that they may be still in North Korea.

North Korea’s proposal for a meeting is going to test Japan if they are ready to keep the abduction issue aside, even if just once, in order to initiate bilateral engagement. If Tokyo is persuaded to keep the abduction and nuclear issues off the negotiating table, Pyongyang would view it as a diplomatic victory. This proposal is also an exploratory test of trilateral diplomatic cooperation between the US, Japan, and South Korea. If Tokyo agrees to talks, it would suggest to Pyongyang that one of the three—between the US, Japan, and South Korea—could be willing to indirectly accept its nuclear status. In North Korea’s thinking, Japan’s acquiescence would perhaps also have a domino effect on the US and South Korea in the future.

North Korea’s intentions appear to be creating some confusion among the US, Japan, and South Korea as well. It also deflects focus from Pyongyang’s growing proximity to Russia. The Russia-Ukraine war has created a window of opportunity for Pyongyang to attempt breaking out of its international isolation. Kim Yo Jong’s response to Kishida’s remarks must also be seen in this context. Overall, even if a potential future exchange between Japan and North Korea doesn’t lead to any forward movement, these stirrings demonstrate Pyongyang’s deft and out-of-the-box foreign policy articulation.


Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.