Thirty Years of Japan’s Diplomacy toward the Korean Peninsula

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.

In December 2017, Japan’s foreign ministry made public how Nakasone had taken his interesting moves regarding the Korean Peninsula in the record of the conversation he had had with Hu Yaobang when he visited China in November 1986. This is what he said to Hu. “When I earlier visited South Korea, its president said that he wanted me to transmit to the Chinese government that he wanted diplomatic relations with China and to achieve that, he wants to expand economic, cultural, and other relations between the two peoples.” Nakasone was referring to his talk with Chun while visiting South Korea in September of that same year. He added, “If China and South Korea could establish an office such as in the LT [Liao-Takasaki trade agreement of 1962 between Beijing and Tokyo] deal, Japan and North Korea could do the same. In that way, North Korea would not turn toward the Arctic [the Soviet Union] and could turn in our direction”. At that time, South Korea did not have official relations with China or the Soviet Union. Along with the task of delivering a message for closer Sino-ROK relations, Nakasone was linking that to closer Japan-North Korean ties with the intention of drawing North Korea away from the Soviet Union.

Moreover, Nakasone appealed to Hu Yaobang with the merits of the idea, explaining “that the Soviet Union and North Korea have deepened their linkages in military affairs means we have to attempt this,” and also that “the South Korean president hopes for four-party talks of South Korea, North Korea, China, and the United States, the parties to the armistice agreement [of the Korean War]. He said something to the effect that it would be good if this could be done excluding the Soviet Union,” adding that the South Korean government has the same thinking as Nakasone. If one turned an eye to the international situation at that time, in October 1986 although Reagan and Gorbachev were holding a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, US-Soviet tensions had been intensifying due to the clash over US SDI (the strategic defense initiative) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That the Nakasone administration, considering its opposition to the Soviet Union, had made linkages to the United States and China the foundation of its diplomacy is made clear here in Nakasone’s diplomatic thinking, which proposed that not only Seoul, but also Pyongyang would be drawn into the effort to try to isolate Moscow.

In response, Hu Yaobang said, even if “it is good that South Korea desires improved relations with China, for the North to accept, even though it is another socialist country, one must think about how to persuade it,” and he was cautious regarding rapid Sino-South Korean reconciliation. Hu added that he is “well aware of the South’s wish for improved relations with China. However, we cannot take a new step beyond the current situation. If we tried to do so, the North would grow angry, and China’s ability to speak to it would be lost.” Hu stated to Nakasone, “Perhaps, you do not know the unshakability of North Korea’s autonomous diplomacy, we know it well.” In Hu’s eyes, the idea raised by Nakasone (of linking the two reconciliations) may reflect not being well-acquainted with the kind of difficulty that exists in dealing with North Korea. Nakasone’s diplomatic thinking of drawing North Korea into a “circle of containment of the Soviet Union was premised entirely on the presence of the view that the Soviet Union is a “common threat” But the flow of actual history proceeded dynamically to rapid US-Soviet reconciliation and the end of the Cold War, and in Northeast Asia too with the Nordpolitik introduced by the Roh Tae-woo administration, followed by South Korea-Soviet relations (December 1990) and Sino-South Korean relations (August 1992). With these developments, there was no room for the kind of diplomatic thinking raised by Nakasone premised on the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The next new idea floated by the Japanese side was revealed when Kanemaru visited North Korea. 

“North-South cross recognition” and the Kanemaru delegation’s visit to North Korea

In September 1990 a Diet delegation of the ruling LDP and the largest opposition party JSP, headed by Kanemaru Shin and Tanabe Makoto, visited North Korea. In the absence of diplomatic relations with the North, the JSP traditionally had maintained friendly ties, which explains the joint delegation of the two parties. One aim sought in the timing of this Diet delegation was to resolve the incident of the 18th Fujisan-maru. In November 1983 after that Japanese cargo ship had left port in North Korea, a solider of the North Korean People’s Army was discovered on board, and he requested asylum in Japan. Subsequently when that ship entered port in the North the captain and another Japanese were arrested, accused of spying by North Korean authorities, and imprisoned in the North. Since there were no diplomatic relations, it had proven difficult to resolve this issue. The Kanemaru delegation was meant to free the Fujisan-maru captain.

Looming in the wider background was movement toward “North-South cross-recognition.” In July 1988 Roh Tae-woo had declared that his aim was to establish diplomatic relations with China and the Soviet Union, and that Seoul would cooperate in improving relations between Pyongyang and Japan and the United States. Not deferring to Seoul, the Japanese government saw a chance to seize this opportunity to directly improve relations with Pyongyang. Kim Il-song was personally hospitable to the Kanemaru delegation, summoning Kanemaru to meet with him for talks lasting as long as five hours. According to Kanemaru, he expressed “forthright apology for the unfortunate past, and sincerity upon which Japan should atone for it.” In response Kim had said, “postwar Japan has taken the correct path” and “Asian matters should be resolved by Asians,” and at the end of the talks it was hinted that the crew of the Fujisan-maru would be released. The rest of the delegation joined in a “three-party joint declaration” of the LDP, JSP, and Korean Workers’ Party aimed at beginning negotiations for the normalization of relations.

The question remaining was “postwar compensation.” In the 1965 Japan-South Korea normalization, the Japanese government had agreed to “economic cooperation” related to its prewar colonial control. However, North Korea was seeking “compensation” not only for the colonial period but also for the “postwar” when Japan did not have relations with North Korea after WWII. The Japanese side firmly opposed this, with Kanemaru resisting by declaring, “It is because I completely am covered in mud.” According to him, “If Korea had not been divided at the 38th parallel, North Korea also could have received compensation for colonial rule at the same time as South Korea. The thinking behind extending this amount which would be paid shows sincerity,” is the judgment to be drawn. This judgment by Kanemaru, the powerbroker in the largest LDP faction—the Takeshita one—was accepted by the Diet members and foreign ministry officials who accompanied him. Finally, however, compensation related to the postwar was incorporated into the “three-party agreement,” which aimed at the early establishment of Japan-North Korea diplomatic relations.

Inside Japan criticisms were aired, one after the other, regarding the inclusion of “compensation” for the postwar. In the midst of this, Kanemaru lost his standing over a scandal related to political finances. While talks between the two governments on diplomatic normalization had been proceeding on the basis of the “three-party agreement,” they were suspended in light of investigations that raised doubts about the development of nuclear weapons by the North. Meanwhile, doubts arose over whether the Japanese language teacher—a North Korean operative—arrested for having carried out the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight was a Japanese female who had been kidnapped from Japan. There was an explosive reaction to the fact that North Korea, in response to Japan seeking to shed light on her, would not agree to talks to the extent that this issue was raised, and Japan-North Korea talks resulting from the “Kanemaru delegation visit to the North” reached an impasse.

In response to Seoul’s outreach to draw closer to Beijing and Moscow, Pyongyang’s approach had tried to draw closer to Tokyo. Through direct talks with Kanemaru, a unique powerbroker in Japan’s political world, Kim Il-song achieved success in getting recognition for compensation even for the postwar. However, in connection to the fall of Kanemaru, who had been stung by criticism inside Japan, movement toward diplomatic normalization was halted as doubts about nuclear weapons development and Japanese abductees rose to the surface. While South Korea established ties to the Soviet Union (1990) and China (1992), North Korea failed in drawing closer to Japan and the United States. Its international isolation deepening, the North accelerated its nuclear development, and that led to the first North Korean nuclear crisis (1993-94).

The first North Korean nuclear crisis and the shake-up of Japanese politics

Kanemaru’s failure shook up Japanese politics in a big way. It heightened criticism of the LDP’s corrupt politics, raising the clamor in political circles and the media for “political reform.” The focal point of the discussion was the necessity of replacing the regime. Blame for this kind of politics was put on the long-term regime of the LDP, which now needed to be swept away. As this discussion was reaching its peak, the LDP powerbroker under Kanemaru, Ozawa Ichiro, left the LDP, forming a new political party, the Shinseito. In the general elections of July 1993 the LDP, which Ozawa had left, lost its majority. The Shinseito together with the JSP and the Nihonshinto, formed by Hosokawa Morihiro and other non-LDP and non-Community Party entities totaling 7 parties, forged a new coalition administration (August 1993) with Hosokawa as prime minister. In order to make possible regime change this administration introduced a small-district electoral system in place of the preceding one. Even as that was realized, the coalition government lacked cohesion, and under suspicion of misuse of political funds, Hosokawa resigned in September. The party with the most Diet members, the JSP, quit the coalition after the short-lived Hata Tsutomu administration, which was formed in April 1994, lasted only two plus months. A new coalition government followed the LDP joining the JSP and Shinto-sakigake with Murayama Tomiichi of the JSP as prime minister. This time of Japanese politics in such turmoil was compounded by the peak tension from the first North Korean nuclear crisis. In response to the revelations of the North’s nuclear development, the Clinton administration was said to be considering a military operation. Japan’s political instability was closely related to the North Korean nuclear crisis.

In February 1994 when Hosokawa visited the United States, it was reported that the main topic for the two sides was trade frictions; however more than half of the discussion with Clinton concerned responding to the North Korean nuclear crisis. The US side strongly appealed to Hosokawa to cooperate in the event there was an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Hosokawa on returning home pointed out to working level officials what kind of cooperation with the United States was possible. However, when it was understood how this would end, in the event the US military was determined to take military action on the Korean Peninsula, including complementary action by the Self-Defense Forces, it would turn out that the Japanese side would hardly be able to do anything. Moreover, inside Japan to that point, given the background of the past war experience, pacifism was entrenched, and forging a legal basis for concrete action in the case of a contingency was subject to a kind of political taboo. For example, even in the case of the Persian Gulf War in the Middle East far from Japan, America showed deep dissatisfaction toward Japan for its insufficient cooperation. In the case of a contingency in North Korea directly tied to Japan’s security, if Japan did nothing, the Japan-US alliance would clearly face a crisis. Hosokawa declared that in case of actual military conflict breaking out on the Korean Peninsula, it was unclear that approval would be forthcoming from the JSP—the pacifistically inclined, largest party in the governing coalition—for expressing, at that point, that Japan would assist the United States to the extent it legally could.

After Hosokawa resigned, a fierce tug-of-war ensued between the coalition government and the LDP over the framework of the successor administration, and how to respond to a contingency in North Korea became one of its focal points. Ozawa, who had become a powerbroker of the coalition, and the Komeito supported as candidate for prime minister the former deputy prime minister of the LDP Watanabe Michio. As discussions swirled around the establishment of a new administration which would include part of the LDP and reorganization of the political world, one reason that was given was to forge a system that could respond in unison to a contingency in North Korea. As a result, although the Hata administration took office with the same coalition framework as the Hosokawa government, right away the JSP broke ranks with the coalition, reacting against Ozawa’s initiative. They most disagreed with Ozawa about responding to such a contingency of concern on the Korean Peninsula. Instead, the Murayama administration began with the JSP joining the LDP. Setting its sights on returning to power, the LDP linked up with the JSP, as in the background, former US president Carter went to North Korea and held direct talks with Kim Il-song to avoid a crisis arising. Yamasaki Taku, the former LDP secretary general, wrote “the avoidance of the nuclear crisis by Carter’s visit to North Korea made possible the start of the joint LDP-JSP administration.” In fact, if the crisis over North Korea continued—the most important and urgent matter in security policy at that time—it would have been difficult for the pacifistic JSP to form a coalition with the LDP. Though the crisis was over at this time, the United States was contemplating the rekindling of a contingency in North Korea, repeatedly demanding that Japan repeatedly make legal preparations. A law concerning guidelines (setting forth concrete defense cooperation between Japan and the United States) specification proved difficult for the Shaminto (the renamed JSP) to support as part of a coalition with the LDP. Such a law in 1999 became possible, once the Obuchi administration had been established after the Komeito, which to then had been in the opposition, gave its support and finally joined in a coalition with the LDP. In this way, the North Korean situation, revolving around the necessity to respond to a contingency, became an extremely important subject in Japanese politics and even played a big role in shifting the coalition framework.

The Koizumi administration and the rise of Abe Shinzo

The fourth case raised here concerns the aftermath of the 2002 visit to North Korea of Koizumi Junichiro. Public opinion was stunned when in September Koizumi made his shocking visit to North Korea. Pyongyang attempted a positive approach to Japan, feeling a sense of danger from the Bush administration’s hardline stance after Bush grouped North Korea with Iraq and Iran in the “axis of evil” Koizumi, as a result, realized the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to North Korea. The talks between him and Kim Jong-il concluded with the “Japan-North Korean Pyongyang Declaration,” which included such themes as the early realization of diplomatic normalization and after that economic cooperation, and respect for international agreements on nuclear weapons and missiles, but the Japanese public was fixated on the abductions issue.

Because on the list of those abducted the North Korean explanation had eight persons who had died, the result was quite a lot worse than the Japanese side had expected, and Kim’s apology (“In this situation, I want to apologize frankly for this regrettable matter. It will not recur.”) worsened Japanese domestic feelings toward the North. Then the problem in Japan became the handling of the five abductees who a month later were allowed to temporarily return to Japan. In contrast to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe’s opinion that the five should be permitted to remain in Japan forever, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda Yasuo and others advocated forcibly returning them to the North for a time, as planned, in order not to damage trust building in bilateral relations if no deal could be reached. In the end, Koizumi followed Abe’s advice, deciding to keep the five in Japan. Abe, who to that time had not been particularly noticed, immediately gained popularity and visibility among the public for his hardline stance regarding the abductee question.

Subsequently, Abe kept raising the banner of his hardline political posture on this issue. Even in his second stint as prime minister from 2012, he kept repeating that in dealing with North Korea, which was developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, he would “apply maximum pressure” and would not “engage in dialogue for the sake of dialogue.” In September 2017 when the threat from North Korea was seen as a “national crisis,” Abe used this a reason to call a general election, dissolving the Lower House of the Diet and building on his position on this issue, winning a victory while the opposition parties were split. At the other extreme, when Trump and Kim Jong-un held an historic summit in June 2018, Abe tried to show that he too was seeking dialogue with Kim. In this way, the rise of Abe inside Japan cannot be divorced from the North Korean issue. He won praise first for showing strong sympathy when the human rights of Japanese were being trampled, and later he attracted strong support in domestic politics by emphasizing “pressure” in response to North Korea’s nuclear development.


When we take an overview of Japan’s diplomacy and its impact on domestic politics over more than thirty years, the extremely important position of Korean peninsular issues comes to the surface. The Nakasone administration in the Cold War era, facing the shared threat of the Soviet Union, demonstrated its intentions to forge a Japan-US-China group, solidifying relations with South Korea into this basic design, and drawing North Korea into it. However, later the regional order could be seen to shift after Gorbachev came to power leading to reconciliation in the US-Soviet Cold War and in the Sino-Soviet split, as well as to talk of “North-South cross-recognition.” During this process, opposing the establishment of relations between South Korea on the one side, and China and the Soviet Union on the other, North Korea tried to improve relations with Japan. Kanemaru’s visit to the North was a response to this by the Japanese side, as was the Koizumi visit to the North an extension of this wave.

At the other extreme, suspicions came into the open about North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, and the first nuclear crisis arose. Revolving around responses to a contingency, after the 1955 system collapsed (a structure of Japanese politics with two main parties, the LDP and the JSP), when Japanese politics were greatly shaken at the peak of the reform of political parties, one reason for the instability of the Hosokawa and Hata coalition administrations was the chaos that resulted in the coalition over the response to the North Korean nuclear crisis, which had made possible the Murayama-led LDP-JSP coalition, which was able to avoid for a time the nuclear crisis. Later, added to nuclear weapons development, the abduction by North Korea of Japanese was exposed, causing the Japanese public to grow angry over the North, which served as the background for the rise of Abe, who advocated a hardline position toward North Korea. Under the 1955 system, political forces which supported friendly relations with North Korea—such as the JSP—had a degree of power, but as the nuclear crisis intensified and the dark side of the North, such as in abductions issue, was exposed, such political forces collapsed. This is one reason such forces linked to the JSP lost respect and faded away.

On the one hand, the situation on the Korean Peninsula exerted a big impact on Japan’s politics over more than thirty years. On the other, Japan was one of the important neighboring countries exerting an influence on the situation on the peninsula. The rise of a hardline position as Japanese politics changed exerted a certain degree of influence on the situation on the peninsula. This mutual effect of Japanese politics and the situation on the peninsula was nothing new. If we look back in history, after the Meiji Restoration and the formation of the Meiji government, the first big debate revolving around diplomacy was in 1873 whether or not to send a military expedition to the Korean Peninsula in what was called the “Seikanron” (subdue Korea debate). Because this led to a split in the Meiji government’s leadership, it finally ended in the Seinan civil war. Later, after the annexed Korean Peninsula was put under Japan’s administration until the end of WWII and the peninsula became frozen in division into North and South, the situation there had comparatively little importance for Japanese politics until the second half of the 1980s when Cold War tensions were easing and heading toward an end, and the situation on the peninsula began to grow fluid. With that, peninsular conditions again became an important focus of Japanese politics. Ahead, if US-North Korea dialogue fundamentally eases tensions or reaches an impasse leading to an exacerbation of tensions, we can expect further influence on the direction of Japanese politics, including constitutional reform and reorganization of the political world.