Monday, February 26, 2007

Step back, Mr. Prime Minister

I want to call attention to Prime Minister Abe's email magazine from last week, in which he discusses seeing a performance by Noel Paul Stookey, onetime member of Peter, Paul, and Mary, of his new song "Song for Megumi," about Yokota Megumi, poster child of the abductions issue.

Simply put, Abe's note shows just how far gone his government is on this issue; it oozes with trite, maudlin phrases such as, "As I listened to the sound of the quiet melody strummed on the acoustic guitar and the soft vocals -- a gentle voice one would use when speaking to a young girl -- an image of a happy Megumi together with her family floated before my eyes."

I can't quite tell what Abe is trying to say. If he's being totally sincere, then this message would lead me to question whether Abe has the backbone to be an international statesman. I don't, however, think Abe's concern stems from purely altruistic reasons. (If anything, this message suggests that Abe has no shame when it comes to using one family's private suffering to his political advantage.)

The abductions issue itself, which has long been Abe's bread and butter, is an ideal way to soften Abe's hard nationalist edge: lambasting North Korea for kidnapping Japanese children is hardly likely to draw criticism, but it has allowed Abe to attack an enemy of Japan and pose as the defender of the Japanese nation (and Japan's children).

I'm not saying the Abe Cabinet is wrong to press North Korea on abductions, but the abductions issue is but one obstacle of many on the road to defusing the North Korean threat and integrating the DPRK into the region. As a result of the abductions issue, the Japanese government seems to have lost all perspective on the Korean issue, and as a result finds itself relatively isolated as the six-party process moves forward.

Abe may have heard encouraging words from Cheney, but the man to listen to may be Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia / Pacific affairs, who said last week at a briefing at the Brookings Institution (transcript available for download here), "...I hope that at some point [North Korea] will come around to an understanding that Japan is right there, and they need Japan. When that moment comes, by the way, and when they do understand that Japan has a need and a right to have closure on this question of abductions, I do hope the Japanese will also reciprocate in the context of what we’ve been doing, that is, de-nuclearization in the Korean Peninsula." In other words, while the US government understands Japan's need for answers on the abductions issue, the US government will not allow the issue to stand in the way of progress on de-nuclearization and normalization.

It seems also that in this message Abe is trying to humanize himself. Why else would he say, for example, "In my junior and senior high school days, I too often listened to their songs, although the name of the group or the titles of its songs may not ring a bell with young people today," referring to Peter, Paul, and Mary? This seems to say, "I may look and act like an aloof patrician, but really I'm like you; I too listen to popular music [just like a certain prime minister identified with Elvis Presley]." I'm sure that it will surprise no one that Abe still looks just as wooden as ever despite, or perhaps because of this lame attempt to appear accessible.

Accordingly, the time is nigh for Abe to step down from the abductions soapbox -- which has helped distort public opinion on Japanese-North Korean relations, as noted here -- and formulate an approach to North Korea that balances all of Japan's interests in regard to Pyongyang. Let's not forget that Japan is perhaps the country most threatened by North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

Stepping back from an issue that has defined Abe's public image for half a decade: now there's an act of political courage.

2 comments:

Ken said...

lambasting North Korea for kidnapping Japanese children is hardly likely to draw criticism, but it has allowed Abe to attack an enemy of Japan and pose as the defender of the Japanese nation (and Japan's children).

Garrett's said this on Seijigiri and I've let it go, especially at the time, but now with this post I can see a bit more into it. Abe has seriously oversimplified the issues that exist with North Korea, and as you say, political positioning seems to be his main motivation. Does this mean that his primereship would be destroyed by the return of the abductees/complete resolution of the issue? I wonder about that. Even if that were to happen, there are so many other existing issues with North Korea that he would be exposed at home to such a degree that I don't see him being able to survive as PM.

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