When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi engages in his historic summit in Pyongyang next Tuesday, he will have two major goals: learning the fate of the Japanese believed to have been abducted to North Korea, and setting the stage for the resumption of security dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.

Koizumi has said his intention in meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — the first summit between the two countries’ leaders — will be to see if conditions are ripe for resuming talks on normalizing diplomatic relations that have been halted since October 2000.

Government officials hope North Korea, in dire economic straits and in fear of U.S. military action after President George W. Bush branded the country part of an “axis of evil,” will concede major points of contention.

However, it remains to be seen how much Kim is ready to yield. Koizumi faces the risk of incurring harsh criticism from both the public and his political opponents, even to the point of endangering his administration, if he fails to achieve any progress with Kim on the abduction issue.

Japan’s priority is learning the fate of 11 Japanese it believes were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.

Pyongyang has steadfastly refused to admit it ever spirited away any Japanese, but some defectors and former agents have claimed otherwise. Also, mysterious vessels found along and near Japan’s shores that have been linked to the Stalinist state indicate that Pyongyang still engages in espionage activities targeting Japan.

Another hurdle, perhaps more difficult, is obtaining a promise from Pyongyang to extend the moratorium on its missile tests beyond the already-pledged 2003, and to agree to let International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors examine its nuclear facilities to ensure they are not being used to produce nuclear weapons.

Koizumi is expected to protest the frequent intrusions of suspected North Korean spy ships and drug-smuggling vessels, including the boat bearing a North Korean flag that was shadowed by the Japan Coast Guard in the Sea of Japan on Sept. 4.

However, it is not clear how hard he will push Kim on the issue.

On Wednesday, Japan salvaged a suspected North Korean spy ship that sank in the East China Sea in December after a shootout with coast guard vessels.

Government officials said the ship’s origins will only be identified after the Koizumi-Kim talks, although evidence retrieved so far points to North Korea.

On Pyongyang’s demand that Tokyo apologize and pay compensation for its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Japan plans to instead offer economic assistance in the course of establishing diplomatic ties. Koizumi is also reportedly ready to repeat an apology offered by past prime ministers for the “sufferings” caused by Japan’s colonial rule.

North Korea will probably not immediately accept all of Japan’s requests, but government officials believe it may provide information about some of the abductees.

“It is reasonable to assume North Korea is ready to offer something substantial on the abduction issue,” Yukio Okamoto, Koizumi’s adviser on foreign affairs, said this week on TV.

A senior Foreign Ministry official also said the government has solid reasons to believe North Korea is ready to make concessions.

“We’re not gambling. . . . There are clear signs of change, and I have a feeling North Korea actually wants to establish diplomatic ties with Japan,” the official said, emphasizing that Pyongyang is well aware that Japan will not normalize ties unless the abduction issue is resolved.

There is growing hope in Japan that Pyongyang will at least release information on Keiko Arimoto, who vanished in 1983 in Europe while studying there.

Her case came to the fore earlier this year when Megumi Yao, the former wife of one of the Red Army Faction fugitives wanted in the hijacking of a Japan Airlines jet to North Korea in 1970, testified to playing a key role in Arimoto’s abduction in Denmark with the help of another Japanese and a North Korean agent posing as a diplomat.

“Arimoto’s case is easier for North Korea to concede because it can claim the abduction was carried out by Japanese,” said Pyon Jin Il, editor in chief of Korea Report, a magazine published in Japan specializing on North and South Korean issues.

But information on Arimoto’s fate alone won’t be enough to satisfy the Japanese public. Before any normalization pact is signed, Kim must at least promise to resolve all 11 abduction cases, Pyon said. Japan officially lists 11, but many believe more were abducted.

Information about a few others may be provided at the summit, experts said. Pyongyang had previously refused to take up the issue, insisting instead that compensation come first. But this position has recently eased, as the North has agreed to discuss the matter in governmental talks.

Officials expect that North Korea will accept Japan’s proposal for economic assistance instead of formal compensation. Tokyo offered the same aid formula when it established diplomatic ties with Seoul in 1965.

“The North Korean economy is on the verge of collapse,” Pyon said. “They will take money in whatever form and will claim internally that the payment constitutes compensation.”

North Korea maintains it has the right to seek redress for colonial rule.

Japan argues it was never in a state of war with what is now North Korea, and its obligation is only to address claims to property left unrecovered from the colonial period. Saying it is now impossible to calculate such assets, Tokyo plans to settle the claim by offering economic assistance.

“The prime minister will make it clear that we cannot do it differently from the economic assistance formula we pursued with South Korea,” another senior Foreign Ministry official said. In establishing relations with South Korea 37 years ago, Japan paid $500 million in such aid.

North Korea will probably demand at least $10 billion — today’s equivalent of what Japan paid to Seoul, according to Pyon of Korea Report.

In light of U.S. concerns that North Korea may use the aid for military purposes, Japan plans to set strict conditions on how the aid is used, for example, by disbursing money for civilian projects agreed to by Tokyo, according to government officials.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs are the biggest concern for the U.S. as it keeps watch on the summit.

Bush, taking a harder stance than that of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, wants North Korea to accept immediate IAEA inspections of its suspected nuclear arms program, to stop developing and exporting missiles, and to reduce conventional weapons along the demilitarized zone.

Unlike Clinton, who tried to ease tensions through dialogue, Bush is condemning Kim’s regime itself, branding him as an “evil” man who threatens the world with weapons of mass destruction and starves his own people.

“Bush’s support for Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang is only conditional,” said Satoshi Morimoto, a professor of international relations at Takushoku University and an expert on security issues. “Washington will welcome it if Japan can make the North Korean side get serious about holding missile talks with the U.S.”

The U.S. reservations are reflected in the fact that it will only send Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to Pyongyang in a bid to restart dialogue if Koizumi’s visit turns out well.

“The possibilities are endless, but the promises are not without limitations,” U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker told reporters this week, underlining the importance of Koizumi getting assurances from Kim on the arms issue.

Morimoto said that if Kim promises to extend the freeze on missile tests and curb its missile program, Washington could regard this as a starting point for resuming security talks with Pyongyang.

“The weapons issue ultimately needs to be discussed between North Korea and the United States, as it’s not an issue that can be resolved solely by Japan,” Morimoto said, pointing out that Japan, for example, cannot meet the North Korean demand for a reduction in the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

“Even if progress is made on the abduction cases, this will not lead to normalization of bilateral ties unless Koizumi can achieve tangible results on the security issue,” Morimoto said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.