Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.07.29

Never Surprise Your Boss

JBpress on July 18, 2014

A July 16 Kyodo News story must have surprised many in Tokyo, at least temporarily. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to refrain from visiting North Korea. Although the Japanese government immediately and flatly denied the report, nobody seems to have confirmed what really happened.

The article reported that Kerry warned, in a telephone conversation with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida on July 7, that "such a trip could disturb" Tokyo-Washington-Seoul coordination against Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs and requested that Tokyo hold prior consultations with the U.S. should they consider an Abe visit to North Korea.

In the Kyodo story, Kerry was quoted as saying that, "it would not be good to see Japan alone move forward from trilateral tie-ups and should Abe visit North Korea, the United States wants Japan to hold sufficient consultations in advance, rather than just informing Washington of his planned visit at short notice."

It was also reported that Kerry expressed "displeasure over Japan's policy of gradually lifting its unilateral sanctions on North Korea depending on progress in the new round of investigations into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s." Aha! Is that really true? What a blunder, if it is!

Honestly, I do not know. Nor am I in a position to confirm the authenticity of the story. When asked about the concern expressed by the U.S. over Japan-North Korea negotiations, Tokyo's Chief Cabinet Secretary strongly denied the report by stating that he "was informed that there was no such fact." When he said that, it would end the media game at least for a while. Fair enough!

The silent majority of Japanese, however, may be second guessing this episode.

First of all, the Kyodo article gave them the impression that the United States is once again imposing its view on Tokyo and dictating to Japan's high-ranking officials what or what not to do because Tokyo had not informed Washington with details of Japan-DPRK discussions well in advance or immediately after each round of talks. That is simply not true.

With no intention to "move forward alone" or immediately visit Pyongyang, Tokyo reiterated that it is always in close contact with Washington. Contrary to what Mr. Kerry might have thought on July 7, Japan has shared what Tokyo would and would not do, as well as the details of talks with Pyongyang, with the State Department and the White House since as early as late May.

If the Kyodo report was accurate, Mr. Kerry might not have been fully informed or briefed on such details. He was in Panama on July 1. After spending a Fourth of July weekend in D.C., he traveled to Beijing on July 8-10, then was in Kabul to see Afghan leaders on July 11-12. Then he flew to Vienna on July 13 to discuss Iran's nuclear program. Simply put, he is too busy as always.

Second, while aware that North Korea's nuclear and missile program is as important as the abduction issue, the silent majority of Japanese also know that the North Korean abduction of their fellow citizens is of a purely humanitarian nature and, therefore, a highly emotional domestic political issue. Just as in Washington, all politics is local and should be properly dealt with.

Many in Tokyo know that the United States recently released five high-profile die-hard Taliban commanders for a single U.S. army soldier who had been taken hostage in Afghanistan. In the Japanese case, the number of Japanese citizens either abducted to or unable to leave North Korea, could amount to several hundreds, most of whom are still alive in the dictatorial state.

Third, Washington's reported warning and request are not necessary because Tokyo has no intention to deviate from the U.S.-Japan-South Korea "trilateral tie-up" in the first place. Rather, the silent majority of Japanese are much more concerned about the recent South Korea-China honeymoon which could undermine the tripartite coordination's ability to keep East Asia stable.

China has been demonizing Japan to weaken and undermine this tripartite tradition. Russians recently approached North Korea and reportedly offered economic assistance in energy. If the U.S. expressed displeasure over Japan's going too far, many in Tokyo would ask why they are not expressing similar displeasure over South Koreans, much less Chinese or Russians, going much further than Japan.

The U.S. Secretary of State is the busiest diplomat in the world. The Secretary may not have enough time for full briefings on important issues. The first thing I leaned in 1978 as a foreign ministry freshman was "never surprise your boss," and my guess today is that somebody might have surprised Mr. Kerry over Japan, or else he was just too busy and underinformed.