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DPRK-Japan Relations: An Historical Overview


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An Overview of DPRK – Japan Relations



Japan and Korea share a history of exchange and conflict dating back nearly two millennia. Extensive contact between the two began during the 6th century AD. In the 16th century, Japan launched two unsuccessful invasions into Korea as a preliminary step to conquering China. After over 200 years of self-imposed isolation during the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan re-opened in 1854 at the demand of the U.S. government. As Western powers colonized East Asia throughout the 19th century, Japan revived its own expansionary ambitions. In 1876, Japan and Korea signed the unequal Treaty of Kanghwa, opening the country to Japanese diplomatic and commercial relations.[i]


Colonial Period in Korea


In 1905, Japan defeated the Russian Empire in a war that ultimately gave it control over Korea.[1]  Formally annexing the peninsula in 1910, Japan quickly implemented policies to construct a colonial system in Korea.[ii] In 1919, a growing independence movement across Korea culminated in 1,500 anti-Japanese demonstrations, during which nearly 23,000 protesters were killed or injured.[iii] With a foothold on mainland Asia, Japan seized Manchuria in 1931, sparking the beginning of the Greater East Asian War.


The progression of the war in East Asia, colonial expansion, and the defense of Manchuria absorbed considerable Japanese assets, which Japan replaced with Korean resources. The Japanese industrialized parts of the peninsula, developing a manufacturing sector that by 1941 represented 29 percent of the colony’s GDP.[iv] Most of the heavy industry was concentrated in the northern half of the peninsula, which later became the industrial base of the DPRK. Korea supplied Japan with steel, tools, machines and chemicals.[v] The Japanese also appropriated rice and other foodstuffs from Korea to replenish its depleted food supplies.[vi]


Towards the end of the 1930s Japan began to recruit Koreans, at times coercing them, to work the jobs left behind by Japanese conscripts. By 1945, approximately two million[vii] Koreans lived in Japan; between 560,000 and one million[viii]  of them were engaged in compulsory labor. In addition, from the early 1930s to the end of World War II, Japan conscripted over 200,000 Korean and Chinese women, euphemistically called “comfort women,” to serve its soldiers at military instillations across its empire.


Tokyo also sought to assimilate the Koreans forcefully into Japanese culture, assigning Koreans Japanese names, promoting the exclusive use of the Japanese language[ix] and banning the teaching of Korea’s language and history.[x]


Left-wing resistance groups formed during the 1930s among the ethnic Korean communities in the occupied territories,[2] one of which was led by Kim Il-sung.[xi] Kim gained a reputation for being “one of the most effective and dangerous guerillas,” but was forced into exile in the Soviet Union in 1941 after a series of Japanese counterinsurgency campaigns.[xii] On August 15, 1945, immediately after Japan’s surrender, the United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel, creating what was to have been a temporary boundary between the Soviet occupation force in the north and that of the United States in the south.[xiii]


After weathering much of the war in a camp along the Sino-Russian border, Kim Il-sung, along with his guerilla comrades and Soviet troops arrived in Pyongyang in 1945.[3]  The south, led by President Syngman Rhee, proclaimed itself as the Republic of Korea (ROK) on August 15, 1948, while the north, led by Kim Il-sung, announced the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on September 9 of the same year. Each government claimed to be the legitimate government of the entire Korean Peninsula.[xiv]


The Korean War


On June 25, 1950, war broke out between the ROK and DPRK when the North Korean People’s Army invaded the South after several years of increasingly bloody skirmishes along the 38th parallel.[xv] As the South Koreans failed to repel the sudden and overwhelming attack by the Northern forces, the United Nations intervened in the conflict after passing a resolution on July 7, 1950 which recommended that “the members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security to the area.”[xvi]


The resolution gave power to the United States to command the UN troops in the Korean Peninsula.[xvii] During the war, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, many South Koreans who had served in the Imperial Japanese Army during the colonial period joined the newly established South Korean army, while a great number of soldiers in the DPRK’s Korean People’s Liberation Army were former anti-Japanese guerilla fighters.[xviii] The United States, which led the Allied occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, used Japanese counterinsurgency specialists with experience from the colonial period to combat North Korea’s communist forces.[xix] The Japanese provided logistical support to the U.S. military, transporting supplies and personnel to and from the Korean Peninsula.


Cold War Era


After Japan’s surrender, many Koreans opted to return to the Korean Peninsula.[xx] However, due to Korea’s miserable economic condition, several hundred thousand decided to stay in Japan.[xxi] The majority of these Koreans initially identified politically with North Korea,[xxii] although the Japanese did not establish diplomatic relations with the DPRK.


In 1955, North Korea assisted in establishing the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, Chongryon in Korean, which serves as an advocacy organization for ethnic Koreans in Japan who identify with the DPRK and acts as the de-facto North Korean embassy in Japan.[4] Between 1959 and 1982, the Chongryon facilitated the “repatriation” of Korean residents in Japan to North Korea. Most of the more than 93,000[xxiii] “returnees” were originally from the southern half of the peninsula.[xxiv] Migration ceased as economic conditions worsened in the DPRK. Relations deteriorated between the DPRK and Japan when Pyongyang granted asylum to members of a Japanese Marxist organization – the Japanese Red Army – after they hijacked a Japanese airliner and defected to North Korea in 1970.[xxv]


Post Cold War Era


In the late 1980s, Japan began to explore the possibility of normalizing diplomatic relations with the DPRK. The first formal talks were held in Pyongyang in January 1991. Negotiations stalled in May 1992 over the suspected North Korean nuclear program[5] as well as the DPRK’s unwillingness to address the issue of Japanese citizens suspected of having been abducted by North Korean agents. [xxvi]The nuclear crisis of 1993-94 further diminished the prospects of normalization talks.[xxvii] However, relations were temporarily improved when in December 1994 Japan agreed to help finance the KEDO project resulting from the Agreed Framework.[xxviii] Furthermore Japan donated $6 million to the DPRK to help after famine struck in 1996.[xxix]


Relations worsened again in August 1998 when North Korea launched a three-stage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan.[6] Japan issued sanctions on North Korea and temporarily froze its financing to KEDO.[xxx] From December 1998 through the fall of 1999, Japan and North Korea held several rounds of unofficial talks aimed at restarting the stalled normalization negotiations. In September 1999, North Korea agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile testing.[xxxi] In 1999, Japan’s Diet approved a bill to provide $ 1 billion to finance the construction of two light water reactors in accordance with the Agreed Framework.[xxxii]


In December 1999, a Japanese delegation including Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama visited North Korea to reestablish bilateral talks.[xxxiii] Later that month the DPRK stated it would conduct a thorough investigation into the abductee issue and the Government of Japan agreed to examine the issue of food assistance.[xxxiv] In March 2000, the two nations agreed to resume normalization talks in Pyongyang the following month. Progress stalled however, over the DPRK’s insistence that Japan formally apologize and pay reparations for abuses suffered during the Japanese occupation, and Japan’s unwillingness to treat this issue separately from other issues pertaining to normalization.[xxxv]


In subsequent talks held in Tokyo in August 2000 Japan intimated that it would be willing to offer the DPRK an economic assistance package, similar to that offered to the ROK in 1965,[7] in lieu of reparations and upon normalization of relations (reportedly the package would be between $5 and $10 billion or roughly half the DPRK’s annual GDP).[xxxvi] However disagreement over terminology lead to an impasse in negotiations. The two sides met again two months later at which time North Korea rejected Japan’s offer of economic assistance. Japan reiterated the need to resolve the abduction issue within the context of the bilateral negotiations, as well as the need to address the outstanding issues of the DPRK nuclear and missile programs, at which point the talks deteriorated completely.[xxxvii]


Following a two-year hiatus in negotiations, in the first official meeting of the two heads of state, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in September 2002 to attempt to restart bilateral normalization talks. These talks produced the “Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration,”[xxxviii] in which Kim agreed to extend the DPRK missile test moratorium beyond its 2003 end date, fulfill its commitments regarding its nuclear program in accordance with international agreements and continue to pursue bilateral negotiations toward normalization. In return, Koizumi apologized for the Japanese occupation of Korea and reiterated Japan’s commitment to provide the North with economic assistance upon the normalization of relations.[xxxix]


In a radical shift in the North’s official stance, Kim Jong-il acknowledged and apologized for the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ‘80s. In his statement, Kim maintained that the abductions had not been officially sanctioned by Pyongyang saying that they had been carried out by “misguided” agents in the military.[xl] This admission, along with the revelation that eight of the thirteen confirmed abductees had since died (the Japanese government maintains that the DPRK has abducted at least seventeen Japanese nationals), stoked popular anger in Japan and significantly contributed to the breakdown in relations following the Koizumi-Kim summit. The five surviving abductees were allowed to travel to Japan in October; the Japanese government refused to send them back to North Korea and demanded that their families be repatriated as well.[xli]


In October 2002 after a bilateral meeting in Pyongyang, the U.S. government claimed that the DPRK admitted to having a uranium enrichment program; the North denied this. Following the meeting the United States declared that North Korea had violated the Agreed Framework and suspended energy shipments to North Korea. In response, North Korea declared the 1994 agreement nullified, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003, and began to reprocess plutonium.[xlii]


As a result Japan froze oil shipments mandated under the Agreed Framework[xliii] and informed Pyongyang that movement towards normalization and economic assistance would be conditioned on the termination of the North’s nuclear program and the repatriation of the abductee’s families.[xliv] When the Six Party Talks regime was established the following year, Japan made the abduction issue a main concern in the negotiations.[xlv]


After Kim Jong-il and Prime Minister Koizumi met again in Pyongyang in May 2004 to discuss the abduction issue and the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the DPRK agreed to send the abductees’ family members to Japan and reopen an internal investigation to ascertain the whereabouts and conditions of the unaccounted for abductees. The results of the investigation were to be presented later that same year.[xlvi]


Representatives from the DPRK and Japan met several more times in 2004 regarding the abductee issue. During these meetings the DPRK presented the findings of its investigation. It also returned the alleged remains of one of the abductees, Megumi Yokota. The Japanese government “strongly protest[ed]” the findings, claiming them as “insufficient to provide a full account of the abductees whose safety remains unknown.” Forensic analysis commissioned by the Japanese government determined that the remains were not those of abductee Megumi Yokota, and the Japanese government protested “the lack of sincerity” of the DPRK investigation.[xlvii] However, Nature Magazine argued that the Japanese DNA test results should be considered “inconclusive,” due to possible contamination of the cremated remains.[xlviii]


In February 2006, Japan stated that, regardless of progress on security issues in the Six Party Talks, it would refuse aid to North Korea in the absence of a guarantee to solve the abduction issue[xlix] While talks were stalled over the Banco Delta Asia Incident, the DPRK test-launched several missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 5, 2006.[l] Japan followed UN resolution 1695 condemning the launch by imposing new financial sanctions against the DPRK.[li] After the DPRK tested a nuclear device[8] on October 9, 2006,[lii] Japan imposed sanctions banning all North Korean imports and placing restrictions on DPRK ships from entering the country.[liii]


In March 2007, Japan and North Korea held unsuccessful talks at the first of several meetings of the “Working Group on the Normalization of Japan-DPRK Relations,” established as part of the Six Party negotiations. Each country clarified its position: North Korea insisted that the abduction issue had been settled and demanded reparations for colonial era atrocities, while Japan stated that the talks would not achieve anything unless progress was made on the abduction issue.[liv] Japan renewed sanctions it had imposed on North Korea after the nuclear test the previous October.[lv]


The Working Group convened again in June and August 2008 at which time Japan conditioned the partial lifting of economic sanctions on positive movement with regards to the nuclear and abduction issues. The DPRK agreed to revisit its earlier investigations into the abduction issue, however failed to follow through on this commitment.[lvi] In November 2007, an official Japanese delegation led by Ms. Tomiko Ichikawa traveled to the DPRK, to “observe disablement activities on three nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, based on the ‘Second Phase Implementation of the Joint Statement.’”[lvii]


Relations deteriorated significantly in April 2009 when the DPRK tested several ballistic missiles including a three-stage Unha-2 rocket carrying the Kwangmyonsong-2 satellite. The Japanese government banned all DPRK ships entry into Japanese ports, upheld the import ban and placed restrictions on remittances sent from Japan to North Korea.[lviii]


The following month, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test. In addition to adopting the international sanctions regime put in place by UNSCR 1874,[9] Japan instituted a blanket ban on all exports to the DPRK.[lix]


Tensions in Northeast Asia rose substantially following the March 2010 attack on the ROK naval vessel Cheonan. Japan placed further restrictions on remittances and announced that it would undertake rigorous measures, in concert with regional allies, to prevent trade with North Korea through third-party intermediaries.[lx] Then, following the North Korean shelling of Yongpyeong Island[10] in November of the same year the U.S. and Japan conducted a large joint military exercise – codenamed Keen Sword – to demonstrate the Pacific Allies’ commitment to maintaining stability in East Asia. Keen Sword was conducted just days after a similar joint exercise between U.S. and ROK forces took place in the Yellow Sea.[lxi] [11]


In its  Annual ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) Security Outlook issued in June 2011, , Japan identified North Korea as a persistent regional threat, calling the continued development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs “intolerable.” The Japanese government announced that it would continue to impose unilateral and multilateral sanctions on the DPRK and said that the DPRK must fulfill its commitments under the 2005 Joint Statement as a prerequisite to reinitiating the Six-Party Talks and called on the DPRK to fulfill its commitments stipulated in the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration in order for negotiations to move forward.[lxii]


The DPRK continues to articulate the need for Japan to apologize and pay reparations for its colonial actions before negotiations can progress. Indeed, in early November 2011 the DPRK cited again the need for “Japan to settle all its crimes committed… against the Korean nation in the past.”[lxiii]


However, it is unclear at this time how Japan’s economic condition may affect progress towards normalizing relations. In particular, the March 11 Tohoku Earthquake and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster may have profound implications for Japan-DPRK negotiations.


The earthquake has damaged the already weak and stagnant Japanese economy due to costs incurred by the cleanup and relief efforts, lost production and consumer spending and increased uncertainty in both domestic and international markets. Furthermore, the Fukushima nuclear disaster has led Japanese leaders to reconsider the country’s reliance on nuclear energy, potentially increasing its dependence on foreign sources of energy.  Japan’s ability to contribute to future multilateral projects, as it once contributed to KEDO, has likely been compromised.


Last Updated December 1, 2011

[1]On July 29, 1905, Japan’s Count Katsura met with U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft to resolve the grievances between the two countries. Japan agreed to accept the U.S. presence in Hawaii and the Philippines, in exchange for the U.S. agreement to give Japan a free hand in Korea. This agreement, known as the Taft-Katsura Agreement was a pretext to Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula.

[2] Right-wing anti-Japanese insurgencies existed in Korea during the early 1920s. Left-wing insurgencies began after the annexation of Manchuria, and most of the insurgents were ethnic Koreans living in Northeast China.

[3] The Soviets picked Kim to head the Provisional People’s Committee in February 1946. After a scramble for power among returning revolutionary factions, Kim became chairman of the local Communist Party and later was elected premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in September 1948.

[4] Mindan, established in 1946, supports ethnic Koreans residing in Japan that identify with the Republic of Korea. By the mid-1990s, the majority of those Koreans who identified with either advocacy organization identified with Mindan.

[7] In 1965, Japan and South Korea established diplomatic relations and then-President of South Korea Park Chung-hee accepted an $800 million economic aid package from Japan in lieu of reparations for damages suffered during the colonial era. At the time, South Korea was heavily in debt to foreign countries and still recovering economically from the Korean War.


[i] Bridges, Brian, Japan and Korea in the 1990s, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd., 1993, p. 7.

[ii] Lankov, Andrei, “Generals were Governors,” The Korean Times, October 2007.

[iii] “Samil Independence Movement in Korea 1919-1920,” December 2000. [Accessed on November 1, 2007 at:]

[iv] Lankov, Andrei, Op. Cited.

[v] Cumings, Bruce, “Japanese Colonialism in Korea: A Comparative Perspective,” Asia-Pacific Research Center, October 2002. [Accessed on November 7, 2011 at]

[vi] By 1944, Korean rice consumption had dropped by 35%, despite a 38% increase in production.  See Nemani, Fredrick, “South Korean Industrialization,” December 1999. [Accessed at:] and Lee, Chang-hee, “Law and Development: Korean Contemporary History in Retrospect,” University of Wisconsin. [Accessed on November 1, 2007 at:].

[vii] Nozaki, Yoshiko, Inokuchi, Hiromitsu, and Kim, Tae-young, “Legal Categories, Demographic Change and Japan’s Korean Residents in the Long Twentieth Century,” Japan Focus, September 2006. [Accessed on November 1, 2007 at:]

[viii] Nozaki, Yoshiko, Inokuchi, Hiromitsu, and Kim, Tae-young, (Ibid.) provide the low estimate; the high estimate is in Kim, Djun-kil and Kim, Chun-gil, The History of Korea, Greenwood Press, 2005, p. 38.

[ix] Bruce Cumings, Personal communication, November 2007.

[x] “Korea’s Colonial Period,” AsianInfo.  [Accessed on November 7, 2011 at]

[xi] Bruce Cumings, Personal communication, January 2008.

[xii] Cumings, Bruce, Korea’s Place in the Sun, W.W. Norton & Co., 1997, pp. 160-161.

[xiii] “The Korean War, Part I,” ZKorean. [Accessed on November 1, 2007 at:]

[xiv] Oberdorfer, Dan, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, Basic Books, December 2001, p. 7.

[xv] Hickey, Michael, “The Korean War: An Overview,” January 2001. [Accessed on November 1, 2007 at:]

[xvi] “The Korean War,” Public Broadcasting Service. [Accessed at:]

[xvii] Takayuki, Munakata, “Making a New Taiwan Constitution,” WUFI Open Forum, September 2004. [Accessed on November 1, 2007 at:]

[xviii] Minnich, James M., The North Korean Peoples’ Army, Naval Institute Press, 2005, pp. 11-12.

[xix] Cumings, Bruce, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, 2003, p. 116.

[xx] Mitchell, Richard H., The Korean Minority in Japan, University of California Press, 1967, pp. 100-104.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ryang, Sonia, “Koreans in Japan,” Amerasia Journal, 2002-2003, pp. 31-33.

[xxiii] “Population,”, [Accessed on November 1, 2007 at:]

[xxiv] Bruce Cumings, Personal communications, January 2008.

[xxv] “Red Army Daughters Return to Japan,” May 2001. [Accessed on November 1, 2007 at:]

[xxvi] Abduction of Japanese Citizens by North Korea,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Japan, 2011. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]


[xxvii] McCormack, Gaven and Haraki, Wada, Op. Cited.

[xxviii] “Country Profiles: North Korea,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, August 2004. [Accessed at:]

[xxix] Sohn, Jie-ae, “North Korea Pledged Aid to Avoid Famine,” CNN, June1996. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[xxx] Kerr, Paul, “Chronology of U.S.-North Korea Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy,” Arms Control Association, June 2003. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[xxxi] Magana, Eli, “An Overview of North Korea’s Ballistic Missiles,” National Committee on North Korea, November 2007. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[xxxii] “Country Profile: North Korea,” Op. Cited.

[xxxiii] The Japanese Diplomatic Bluebook 1999, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2000. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Manyin, Mark E., “North Korea-Japan Relations: The Normalization Talks and the Compensation/Reparations Issue,” Congressional Research Service, June 13, 2001. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[xxxvi] Manyin, Mark E., “Japan-North Korea Relations: Selected Issues,” Congressional Research Service, November 26,2003. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[xxxvii] Manyin, Mark E., “North Korea-Japan Relations: The Normalization Talks and the Compensation/Reparations Issue,” Op. Cited.

[xxxviii] See

[xxxix] Manyin, Mark E., “North Korea-Japan Relations: Selected Issues,” Op. Cited.

[xl] Joyce, Colin, “N. Korea Admits to Kidnappings,” The Telegraph, September 2002. [Accessed on November 7, 2011 at:]

[xli] Manyin, Mark E., “North Korea-Japan Relations: Selected Issues,” Op. Cited.

[xlii] “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.” Op. cited.

[xliii] Rennack, Dianne, “North Korea: Economic Sanctions,” Congressional Research Service, October 2006. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Konoshi, Weston S., “Washington Japan Watch: Japan Stuck on Abduction Issue,” Daily Yomiuri, August 2005. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[xlvi] “Abductions of Japanese Citizens by North Korea,” Government of Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011., op. cited, p. 3

[xlvii] Ibid., pp. 4-5

[xlviii] Cyranoski, David, “DNA is Burning Issue as Japan and Korea Clash Over Kidnaps,” Nature Magazine, February 2, 2005. [Accessed on November 7, 2011 at:]

[xlix] “Japan to Refuse Aid to N. Korea Even if Six-Party Talks Progress,” Kyodo News, February 2006. [Accessed on November 7, 2011  at:]

[l] “Country Guides: Korea,” Op. Cited.

[li] Lee, Karin J., and Choi, Julia, “Timeline: Key Events and U.S. Sanctions on the DPRK,” The National Committee on North Korea, August 2007. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:] and Adam, Ruxandra, “North Korea’s Missile Test-Fire Draws Harsher Sanctions,” Softpedia, September 2005. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[lii] “North Korea Nuclear Milestones 1962-2006,” Wisconsin Project, November/December 2006. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[liii] Lee, Karin J., Choi, Julia, “North Korea: Economic Sanctions and U.S. Department of Treasury Actions 1955-September 2007,” National Committee on North Korea, November 2007. [Accessed at:]

[liv] “N. Korea-Japan Talks Clarify Position,”, September 2007. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[lv] “Japan Renews Sanctions Against North Korea,”, October 2007. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:$1146587.htm]

[lvi] “Abduction of Japanese Citizens by North Korea,” Op. Cited.

[lvii] “Statement by Foreign Minister Koumura on Sending of Officials to North Korea for the Disablement of Nuclear Facilities,” Government of Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 26, 2007. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[lviii] “Abduction of Japanese Citizens by North Korea,” Op. Cited., p. 7

[lix] Ibid., p. 7

[lx] Ibid., p. 7

[lxi] “U.S.-Japan Naval Drills Start as N. Korea Tensions Rise,” BBC News, Asia-Pacific, December 3, 2010. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[lxii] “Annual ARF Security Outlook 2011,” Government of Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011. [Accessed on September 14, 2011 at:]

[lxiii] “Japan Urged to Honestly Settle its Past Crimes,” KCNA, November 6, 2011. [Accessed on November 8, 2011 at:]