When considering Japan’s politics and diplomacy toward North Korea over the thirty years from the second half of the 1980s four important developments warrant attention: 1) Nakasone’s approach during the Cold War; 2) Kanemaru’s 1990 visit to the North in an effort to normalize relations; 3) Japan’s response and domestic politics reacting to the first nuclear crisis of 1993-94; and 4) the 2002 Koizumi visit to North Korea and what unfolded in its aftermath. Each of these developments was related to the international situation at the time: 1) Japan’s diplomacy at a time of increasing Soviet-US tension in the Cold War; 2) Japan’s actions in a period when discussions were proceeding toward the end of the Cold War and a relaxation of tensions even over the Korean Peninsula (North-South cross-recognition, South Korea establishing diplomatic relations with Russia and China, and North Korea establishing relations with Japan); 3) Japan’s response to the events becoming manifest with the North Korean nuclear crisis; and 4) the revelations about Japan’s abductee problem, which came to have a great impact on how it managed the North Korean issue subsequently. When we look back over thirty years at the way Japanese diplomacy toward the Korean Peninsula has unfolded and the fact that the approach has differed greatly from period to period, as well as that the situation on the peninsula is considered directly connected to Japan’s security, we recognize the big impact that has been repeatedly exerted on Japan’s domestic politics.
The deepening Cold War confrontation and Nakasone’s diplomatic strategy
In the mid-80s in Northeast Asia, as the Soviet aggression in Afghanistan continued, the Cold War confrontation exacerbated. In the midst of this, the foundation of Japan’s diplomacy was deepening the link among the United States, Japan, and China in response to the shared Soviet threat, which was represented by the diplomatic line of Nakasone Yasuhiro. Nakasone forged friendly relations with Reagan and Hu Yaobang, asserting when he visited the United States in 1983 that Japan would take a strong defensive stance like an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in consideration of its opposition to the Soviet Union. In security his positive posture drew a line that contrasted with previous Japanese prime ministers. What became the starting point of this kind of diplomacy was Nakasone’s 1983 visit to South Korea shortly after taking office, when he and Chun Doo-hwan reached a compromise on economic cooperation, which had been a concern in bilateral relations. In response to Seoul’s request for a large-scale loan from Japan to raise necessary funds for security, Tokyo found it uncomfortable both that this was a military administration and that South Korea had a feeling of alienation toward Japan. Yet, at a time of a tenser Cold War with the Soviet Union, Nakasone decided that he did not like the downswing in Japan-ROK relations; he resolved the problem by offering economic cooperation to the tune of a $4 billion loan to the South. Next Nakasone went to the United States for talks with Reagan and was highly appreciated for his diplomatic success by an administration which had been troubled by the disharmony between Tokyo and Seoul in the midst of the Cold War. Thus, Nakasone began the improvement in ties to Seoul and established the framework for diplomacy with it.