The inauguration of a new South Korean administration this month will bring Tokyo, Seoul and Washington closer to a unified position on how to deal with North Korea, while Japan’s concerns that it might be left behind by the U.S. diminish as Pyongyang delays disclosing its nuclear programs, experts and government officials say.
“The change of government in South Korea will have a positive impact” on Japan and the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, said Hitoshi Tanaka, a former diplomat and now a senior fellow at the nonprofit think tank Japan Center for International Exchange. Tanaka was Japan’s top negotiator with the North and engineered the historic September 2002 Pyongyang summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong Il.
Lee Myung Bak, who on Feb. 25 will take over as president of South Korea, has promised to improve ties with Japan and the U.S., which have been strained under Roh Moo Hyun, and to review Seoul’s policies on North Korea and take a more hardline position than previous administrations.
When Roh became president five years ago, he essentially inherited Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy” and put reconciliation between the two Koreas ahead of resolving the standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
Roh provided the North with economic assistance regardless of progress in the six-party denuclearization talks, allowing Pyongyang to depend on South Korea at a time when Japan and the U.S. were imposing economic sanctions.
Lee meanwhile has said financial assistance to the North will be impossible unless there is progress on the nuclear threat.
South Korea’s detente policy allowed the North to buy time even when Tokyo and Washington were taking punitive measures, Tanaka said, but the incoming Lee administration considers the nuclear issue a priority.
Tanaka said the policies of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will grow closer because all three advocate the principle of “action for action,” and this is a positive development for Tokyo as it seeks a breakthrough on the unresolved abductions of Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s.
With the three countries homing in on a common position, now is the time for a comprehensive approach to put pressure on Pyongyang, Tanaka said.
For much of his time in office, U.S. President George W. Bush took a hard line on North Korea, labeling Pyongyang a member of the “axis of evil” countries sponsoring terrorism in his State of the Union address in 2002. But his administration reversed course on North Korea last year and offered the possibility of warmer ties in exchange for the reclusive country denuclearizing.
The new policy led to a series of breakthroughs in the long-stalled denuclearization talks involving North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. In October, North Korea agreed to disable its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and declare all of its nuclear programs and weapons by the end of the year, although this deadline was missed.
The Bush administration meanwhile pledged to start the process of taking the North off its list of state sponsors of terrorism if Pyongyang meets its obligations. This fueled worries in Japan because it opposes taking North Korea off the blacklist until it comes clean on the abductions.
But as the yearend deadline passed, it became apparent that North Korea is reluctant to make a complete and accurate declaration of its nuclear programs, while Washington appears to be cooling, at least for now, on easing the conditions for removing Pyongyang from the terror-sponsor list, according to Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo.
And they hope that given the current situation, North Korea can no longer afford to ignore Japan as it did when the six-party talks moved forward essentially through direct negotiations between U.S. and North Korean officials.
“We are aware that North Korea sets normalizing diplomatic ties with the U.S. above establishing diplomatic relations with Japan, but that doesn’t mean the North can ignore Japan,” a senior ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “North Korea knows very well that if it doesn’t normalize ties with Japan (and resolve the abduction issue), it will not be able to get sufficient economic assistance.”
The officials also hope that Japan, for its part, can adopt a more flexible approach under Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, unlike during the reign of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
Abe, whose political rise owed much to his hard line on Pyongyang, refused to budge on denying economic aid without progress on the abductions. Fukuda has meanwhile pledged to seek a resolution to the North’s nuclear programs, missile threats and the abductions in a “comprehensive” manner.
Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka, Japan’s former top negotiator in the six-party talks, stressed the importance of unity among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea in dealing with North Korea.
“What is important for Japan is to come into line with the relevant countries and be patient on persuading Pyongyang to make a complete (and accurate) declaration, while trying to convince the North that resolving the abduction issue will eventually be to its benefit,” Yabunaka told reporters Jan. 17 when he replaced Shotaro Yachi as the ministry’s top bureaucrat.
Whether the North will actually move toward full denuclearization remains unclear.
“I don’t think North Korea will fully disclose its nuclear program” because retaining the nuclear option “is crucial for (Kim Jong Il) to maintain his dictatorship,” said Masao Okonogi, a professor at Keio University in Tokyo.
“What the North is trying now is to delay declaring its nuclear programs as much as possible and somehow extract aid from South Korea to rebuild its economy,” Okonogi said.
He said a new development may emerge between Washington and Pyongyang around the time Lee takes power. There is speculation that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to attend the Feb. 25 inauguration, might go on to visit Pyongyang the following day, when a performance by the New York Philharmonic is scheduled there, he said.
“It is still possible that the U.S. will make concessions” to the North, Okonogi said, pointing out that Bush’s omission of any mention of North Korea in his last State of the Union address on Jan. 28 may indicate such an intention.
If Washington and Pyongyang fail to make progress before Bush leaves office, it will take a long time to get the momentum rolling again toward resolving the nuclear issue, said JCIE’s Tanaka.
“When a new U.S. president is sworn in, it will take at least six months to review the previous government’s policies and publicize new ones, which means that there will be a policy vacuum until around June next year,” Tanaka said.