John Delury Headshot

Secretary Clinton's Victim Diplomacy in East Asia

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Secretary Clinton is in Asia. On a trip billed to emphasize forward-looking US-Asia engagement and collaboration, there is one notable exception. Secretary Clinton plans to visit with families of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by North Korean agents. As an act of compassion, it is a laudable gesture. But, the first stop on the Secretary of State's first tour of duty, the meeting is a profoundly political act, charged with symbolism that could send disconcerting messages across East Asia.

The State Department presumably intends by meeting with victims of the abductions to send a strong signal of its commitment to the US-Japan alliance. Tokyo was not happy that Washington went through with delisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, in spite of a lack of progress on the abductee issue. Japan has been drifting away from the Six Party Talks for many months, to everyone's concern. Secretary Clinton is presumably signaling that she recognizes Tokyo's priorities, and that the US will make sure resolution of the abduction issue is a core component of resolving the North Korean issue.

The problem is that the fate of the abductees is not simply a family tragedy or human rights offense. It is also the pet issue of Japan's militarist far-right. The right-wing has used the issue to insert its agenda into the heart of Japan's foreign policy, and, through media manipulation, into mainstream public opinion. Right-wing organizations have used the unresolved fate of kidnapped Japanese citizens to dramatize their inverted vision of history in which Japan is Asia's real historical victim. It is no coincidence that some of the same people who denounce North Korea for its kidnapping program in the 1970s and '80s also deny Japan's wartime atrocities across Asia.

By meeting with families of abductees, Secretary Clinton risks validating the political campaign orchestrated and funded by the Japanese right to make this the dominant issue in Japan's relations with North Korea and the Six Party Talks. It puts the Secretary of State in the odd position of adding her moral authority and "rock star" charm to a right-wing movement to hijack Japanese foreign policy.

The symbolic equivalent of a visit with the abductee families would be for Secretary Clinton, when in Beijing, to meet with families of Han Chinese killed in the street violence in Lhasa a year ago. The ethnic killings that took place in Tibet were deplorable. But meeting with victims' families would play directly into efforts by the nationalist Chinese right to frame the Tibet issue in perverse terms of Han victimization at the hands of Tibetans.

Looking through a Chinese or Korean lens, the wisdom of a meeting that highlights unresolved historical crimes of state against Japanese is further thrown into question. The Secretary would at least be expected not to play historical favorites. Will she then meet with the brave band of elderly Korean "comfort women" who protest regularly outside the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul, demanding a full accounting for the systematic sexual enslavement of probably hundreds of thousands of foreign women to "service" members of Japan's military in their posts across the Pacific? Will she meet with families of the victims of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, when Japanese forces rampaged through one of China's great capital cities, slaughtering civilians and raping countless local women?

On top of all this, there is a practical diplomatic dilemma. For the political forces pushing the abduction issue in Japan do not actually want the issue to be resolved. They use the mystery surrounding the abductions as a lever to drive public opinion in Japan further to the right--taking a hard-line toward China, Korea and the US, withdrawing from the Six Party Talks, reversing the constitutional limits on military defense, minimizing Japan's wartime atrocities across the Asia Pacific, and nurturing a sense of Japan as historical victim. The abduction issue is useful for this agenda only in so far as it remains unresolved. Therefore, predicating forward progress in the Six Party Talks on resolution of the abduction issue--so long as it remains the darling of Japanese right--virtually condemns the North Korean negotiations to failure. Considering the stakes, this is a high price to pay in order to placate Japan's nationalists.

We are left with the hope that Secretary Clinton is fully aware of
the minefield into which she walks, and that she sought out the
occasion of this meeting to finesse a breakthrough--that in a single
stroke the Secretary will honor the suffering of the abductees and
their families, while dislodging the issue from the right-wing agenda.
Perhaps this is Secretary Clinton's secret purpose. Perhaps she will
succeed where even Prime Minister Koizumi failed. If so, she would
prove herself worthy of her station at the apex of American
diplomacy.