Monday, February 9, 2009

A new course on the abductees

Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, told reporters Monday that the government is working to arrange a meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the families of Japanese abducted by North Korea.

As MTC wrote of a dinner Secretary Clinton had with Asia experts in advance of her trip, "Members of the Bush Administration Asia team committed a major blunder in failing to speak bluntly to the Japanese government and the Japanese people about the DPRK abductions issue. Having the Yokotas visit with President Bush was a nightmarishly bad decision, setting the stage for an ultimate, inevitable 'betrayal' of Japan over the DPRK terrorism delisting."

I cannot stress this point enough.

The Bush administration, for all of its good work on behalf of the alliance, nearly allowed itself to get entrapped by the Japanese right. Japanese conservatives sought not only to make Japan's North Korea policy center on the abductees — a goal largely achieved — but also to center US North Korea policy on the abductees. The US was to be the instrument by which the Japanese people would be made whole again, because US pressure in tandem with Japanese pressure would force North Korea to provide a full account of its abductions and release any surviving abductees.

Of course, if the conservatives were really focused on recovering the abductees, they would have been making overtures to China, presumably the only country with enough leverage over North Korea to get it to do anything (which may overstate the extent of Chinese influence in Pyongyang). They did not look to China for help on the abductees. Could that be because they had little interest in recovering the abductees but rather in using the abductees as a lever to take a harder line against both North Korea and China, a way to justify a more hawkish foreign policy?

Similarly, the abductees were also used as a bludgeon against the US. Consider that once the US opted to embrace the abductees by scheduling face-to-face meetings with the families for former President Bush and former US Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer, it became difficult for senior US officials — even the vice president — to question openly the Japanese government's emphasis on the abductees. Naturally some Bush administration officials believed in the importance of abductee issue, but as the about-face on North Korea showed, not everyone believed it, because ultimately the US was able to break the bargain on the abductees and commit to negotiations with North Korea. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, however, was left to take much of the blame for "betrayal," with the president reassuring Japan even as the US proceeded to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The point is that if the Obama administration is going to rest on symbolic gestures, like meeting with abductee families and taking care to stress the problem at every opportunity, it better be prepared to follow through on those gestures — or be prepared to damage the alliance.

My frustration with last year's "crisis" in the alliance was that it was completely foreseeable, and yet the Bush administration did nothing to soften the blow, nothing to convince Japanese officials to shift their focus and try to turn the attention of the Japanese public from the abductions to other pressing concerns regarding North Korea. The administration wasn't wrong to treat other issues as more important; it was wrong to continue to signal to Japan that the abductees were important to the administration when clearly the administration had other priorities in its final years.

I only hope that Secretary Clinton is conscious of this dynamic. Yes, Japanese are wondering about the durability of the US commitment to Japan following the "betrayal" of 2008. But is the way to renew the US commitment simply repeating the same empty promises that led to the sense of betrayal in the first place? It would be one thing if the Obama administration were prepared to commit political capital to solving the issue (although if it were I would have grave concerns for the administration's priorities). But I suspect that the abductees — and the alliance in general — are not among the top five priorities. So why continue the game of using the beleaguered relatives of the abductees as pawns to show that the US cares about the abductees? The alliance is desperately in need of a reassessment of each ally's expectations of the other.

Accordingly, I hope when Mr. Kawamura speaks of Mrs. Clinton's "busy schedule," he is preparing the way for the secretary's not meeting with the abductee families, for the good of the alliance of course.


Janne Morén said...

It becomes a bit more understandable if you assume the previous US government saw Japan as a vassal state, not an ally. With the US calling all shots and with Japan having no options but to back whatever it did, why waste political capital to soften that blow? It would have looked heartless and mean to have the president or high-ranking official go back on their commitment on US television when they played up the sentimental angle of the abduction issue support earlier. Easier to just not do it and not worry about what Japan would think about it.

Anonymous said...

I hope Hillary will take the opportunity to discuss the return of U.S. citizens abducted, being held in Japan as well. The Children’s Rights Council of Japan estimates that between 100-200 American children are abducted to, or retained in, Japan every year. Japan has become known as a “Haven for International Child Abduction”; Japan sanctions International Child Abductions!

Father of Takoda & Tiana, held in Japan since January 16, 2004.