Tokyo falls in line with U.S. on Pyongyang

Abduction issue put on back burner to present a united front with Washington over denuclearization

by Reiji Yoshida

The nuclear declaration delivered to China by North Korea on Thursday evening is long overdue and will likely reveal a sharp divide between Tokyo’s hardline stance toward Pyongyang and Washington’s policy of appeasement.

Much to Tokyo’s chagrin and despite repeated demands to the contrary, the United States, Japan’s only military ally, is putting aside the issue of the North’s abduction of Japanese nationals by its agents in the 1970s and ’80s and starting the process of striking Pyongyang from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states.

But high-ranking government officials said Japan, given the importance of its alliance with the U.S., will support Washington’s efforts to promote the next phase of the process to denuclearize the North, despite expected shortfalls in Pyongyang’s declaration that the U.S. apparently is inclined to disregard.

“We should not criticize the United States. Who would benefit from it? That’s what exactly Pyongyang wants,” said a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official in charge of Korean affairs.

“And we share the same eventual goal (of denuclearizing the North). The U.S. is now promoting the process for that goal,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill, the declaration is expected to list all of the North’s nuclear materials, facilities and programs, but will not include mention of existing nuclear arms, which pose a direct threat to Japan.

Observers have said the U.S. may have made concessions to the North by accepting an incomplete declaration because it is placing priority on preventing nuclear proliferation to terrorists or other parties, instead of on removing the atomic weapons that presumably already exist.

“There is no worse nightmare than the bringing together of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an address at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on June 18.

Pyongyang agreed in September 2005 to abolish all its atomic weapons and nuclear programs, kicking off the current three-phase process to denuclearize — shutting down its nuclear facilities, disabling them, and finally abolishing all nuclear weapons, facilities and programs.

At the end of the second phase, North Korea was expected to declare all its nuclear activities, including existing weapons. But although that is not going to happen, the U.S. has held off criticizing Pyongyang and has instead tried to appease the North.

“The North Koreans have acknowledged that we have to deal with the weapons. But not in this phase — not in phase two, but rather in a subsequent phase,” Hill told reporters Tuesday in Beijing.

Experts say the U.S. is rushing to clinch a deal with North Korea to secure a concrete diplomatic achievement for President George W. Bush before his term in office expires in January.

Bush has heavily criticized his predecessor, Bill Clinton, over his North Korean diplomacy. But in fact Bush’s policy has had much worse results, said Shunji Hiraiwa, professor at the University of Shizuoka and an expert on Korean affairs.

“(Bush) has allowed the North to accumulate more plutonium and even to conduct a nuclear test. So far, he has made the situation worse,” Hiraiwa said.

“So Bush is now eager to reverse the situation by having Pyongyang renounce its nuclear programs at any cost before the end of his term,” the professor said.

Foreign Minister Masahiro Komura, who is set to meet Rice in Kyoto on Friday, said he will question the apparent rushed U.S. approach and urge her to keep the North on the terrorism-sponsor list until Pyongyang makes substantial progress in both the nuclear arms and abduction issues.

But at the same time, Komura carefully avoided criticizing Washington, conceding it might be felt that accepting an incomplete declaration now will help break the deadlock and promote the negotiation process for eventual denuclearization.

“We will keep closely discussing that point” with the U.S. and other countries in the six-party talks, which group Japan, the U.S., North Korea, China, South Korea and Russia, Komura told a news conference on June 20.

Foreign Ministry officials have often lamented that they have been largely excluded from closed-door negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea over denuclearization.

Still, the U.S. is the only ally Japan can turn to in negotiating with Pyongyang over the nuclear and abduction issues.

On June 13, Pyongyang finally agreed to launch a “reinvestigation” into the abductions, reversing its earlier position that the issue was settled.

“The U.S. has helped us a lot in prompting North Korea to restart the investigation into the abductions. This time, we need to work hard,” a top Foreign Ministry official said.

The main negotiating leverage Japan has now is economic aid, the official added.

Tokyo is determined for now not to provide energy aid, despite increasing pressure from the other parties in the six-way talks, the official said.

“Other countries in the six-party talks will definitely criticize Japan, saying it should provide assistance because there has been some progress in the Japan-North Korea relationship,” said the Foreign Ministry official in charge of Korean affairs. “But Japan will not provide energy assistance. We will say it is North Korea that is to blame.”