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A Complex Relationship
North Korea and Korea as a whole have a very complex relationship with Japan. The majority of their modern history has been shaped by the annexation of Korea that took place in 1910. Although both South and North Korea gained independence in 1945, the Korean War led to the almost complete alienation of North Korea from the rest of the world. North Korea was able to establish relationships with China and the Soviet Union, to which Japan had no official diplomatic response until 1965.
The reasons for this are tied to the cultural identity of North Korea, as the story of North Korean independence is closely tied to the Japanese occupation and the idea that the country of Japan is an enemy of North Korea. The North Korean Communist revolution was based on the overthrow of the Japanese regime that had tormented Koreans. These accusations are not without merit, as the actions of the Japanese Empire in the region were reprehensible and caused issues not only between North Korea and Japan but also between Japan and South Korea. For example, the issue of Japan using Korean women as “comfort women” during the Second World War was not admitted by Japan until recently (Kazue 620). After the war, South Korea also imposed a number of sanctions against trade with Japan and often freely disregarded international copyright law. However, in the modern era, South Korea and Japan have a moderately positive relationship. However, North Korea and Japan have been influenced by a number of events that have changed their dynamics.
In 1955, the General Association of Korean Residents was established, which assisted Koreans who lived in Japanese territory and supported North Korea. It led almost 60,000 Korean residents to move back to North Korea over the course of five years. By 1965, the first treaty opening official relations between Japan and North Korea was created. While this was initially criticized, it allowed for further cooperation between the countries in the early 1970s. South and North Korea began to be seen equivalently in the eyes of Japanese politicians, and no action that would oppose or support one side or the other was taken. These relationships shifted as new prime ministers took different approaches to the politics of the region.
Nevertheless, open hostility changed to an uneasy and yet partially positive relationship. Korean residents in Japan were allowed to be educated based on North Korean educational programs, and overall they were able to continue practicing their culture without much interest or opposition from Japanese citizens (Han et al. 167). All of this changed when a series of abductions occurred between 1977 and 1983. An unknown number of Japanese citizens were abducted by the North Korean government for a variety of purposes. Only 17 people were officially recognized as abducted. They included eight men and nine women. These abductions were denied by North Korea until 2002, and even then only 13 abductions were confirmed officially. The reasons for the abductions ranged from the need for a teacher for Korean spies to women being stolen to be wives (Hagström and Hanssen 71).
This incident caused a great rift between Japan and North Korea. Koreans were persecuted by Japanese nationalists, and communications became strained once more. This situation was exacerbated by the start of North Korean ballistic missile testing at the end of the 1990s. On multiple occasions, North Korean missiles flew over Japanese territory and landed in its waters. These tests became a constant point of tension between the two nations.
There was almost no contact between Japan and North Korea in recent years. However, the recent diplomatic initiatives of the North Korean leader may lead to a new period of positive relationships. In 2017, the situation reached a critical mass when North Korea gained nuclear weapons capability. Even the lowest range North Korean missiles are capable of reaching Japan, and the increased frequency of testing was a serious concern for Japanese citizens. On March 17, 2017, one such test caused the first evacuation drill in Japan. This event increased tensions in the region and perhaps led to North Korea’s current attempts at diplomacy (Anderson 153).
The proposed meeting between Kim Jong Un and Shinzo Abe may seem surprising to people who look only at the recent history between these countries. However, since the end of the Korean War, Japan has had multiple periods of relatively positive relationships with North Korea. Even during periods of antagonistic relationships, attempts to improve them were undertaken on the Japanese side. Perhaps the most interesting example of such an attempt was organized by Antonio Inoki, the owner of New Japan Wrestling and a member of the Japanese House of Councilors. By partnering with Muhammad Ali and members of the American company World Championship Wrestling, he managed to organize the Pyongyang International Sports and Culture Festival for Peace in 1995. Inoki was trained by a North Korean wrestler known as Rikidozan, whose work is highly respected in both Japan and North Korea. Because of this association, he was given approval by the North Korean government. The event was attended by 355,000 people, which is a record audience for a professional wrestling event. However, all of the attendees were allegedly forced to attend the event (Guthrie-Shimizu 365). Despite this massive undertaking, the event did not improve the relationship between the countries, and the ballistic missile tests that occurred soon after this event exacerbated the tension.
Nevertheless, the lack of surprise over the proposed meeting between the leaders of the two countries does not mean the meeting should not be taken seriously. The long period of silence and the dramatic change in international opinion that North Korea is attempting to achieve may bring benefits for both countries. Kim Jong Un has already stated that the country is starting to shift its focus away from developing a nuclear arsenal and he appears to be seeking peaceful cohabitation with other countries in the region. His statements may be false, but diplomacy is a choice always worth considering.
Anderson, Nicholas D. “America’s North Korean Nuclear Trilemma.” The Washington Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4, 2017, pp. 153–164.
Guthrie-Shimizu, Sayuri. “Tokyo 2020: Opportunity for Regional Reconciliation or Protracted Antagonism?” Japanese Imperialism: Politics and Sport in East Asia, Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, 2018, pp. 365–388.
Hagström, Linus, and Ulv Hanssen. “The North Korean Abduction Issue: Emotions, Securitisation and the Reconstruction of Japanese Identity from ‘Aggressor’ to ‘Victim’ and from ‘Pacifist’ to ‘Normal.’” The Pacific Review, vol. 28, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp. 71–93.
Han, Sang-Jin, et al. Divided Nations and Transitional Justice: What Germany, Japan and South Korea Can Teach the World. Routledge, 2015.
Kazue, Muta. “The ‘Comfort Women’ Issue and the Embedded Culture of Sexual Violence in Contemporary Japan.” Current Sociology, vol. 64, no. 4, 2016, pp. 620–636.