Japan is not, and will not be, a major player on denuclearizing North Korea because of its intransigence on the abduction issue, according to a top U.S. expert on Japan.

Gerald Curtis, the Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, said Japan “put itself in a corner” by taking a hardline approach on the abduction issue and, as a result, it “does not have much leverage of its own” to deal with North Korea.

Aside from it being a terrible humanitarian tragedy, the abduction issue has spun out of control to become a “spur to heighten Japanese nationalism,” toughening public opinion on how to deal with North Korea, Curtis said at a recent forum at The Korea Society in New York.

Because of its colonial past, Japan had always had uneasy relations with North Korea, but its public opinion turned sharply against North Korea in 2002 when Pyongyang admitted abducting 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies.

“It’s become a real political campaign in Japan to keep this (abduction) issue alive,” Curtis said.

He added there are a number of different groups in Japan, other than those helping the abductees’ kin, that are trying to rally support for their political agenda under the antiabduction banner.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rose to fame largely because of his hawkish approach toward the North, Curtis said, and he has taken a very divergent approach toward Pyongyang from his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

Koizumi did his best to deal with the tragedy of the abductions, but he also saw there was a bigger issue at stake, he said. Koizumi believed it was in the national interest to normalize relations with Pyongyang based on an agreement to denuclearize North Korea.

The professor said that when he spoke in private with Koizumi a few months before he left office, the then prime minister was obviously frustrated by the fact that he had not been able to normalize relations with North Korea during his five-year term.

However, Abe has a very different view, according to the Columbia professor.

“It’s impossible for me to see this administration offering normalization, reparations and other things that would come in the process of normalization as a way to entice North Korea back to the table,” he said.

“There isn’t much flexibility, there’s no diplomacy, there’s solidarity with the hardliners in the Bush administration. . . . It’s the one place in the world where you can find a lot of support for the more rightwing elements of the Bush administration.”

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush’s administration, which has refused direct talks with North Korea, is showing signs it may be changing its position.

Donald Zagoria, a trustee at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy who also spoke at the forum, said the U.S. is considering offering a package of incentives to North Korea at the next six-party denuclearization talks.

Zagoria said the new U.S. Congress, controlled by the Democrats, who have been pressing for dialogue with Pyongyang, and recent emphasis on greater pragmatism in U.S. foreign policy, “could serve as a counterweight to more intractable hardliners” on the North Korea issue in the Bush administration.

He said the U.S. reportedly has drafted a peace treaty, possibly to replace the 1953 Korean War armistice.

“Some of my Chinese colleagues . . . have told me that a peace treaty was shown, or the intention to put it on the table, was discussed with the Chinese and this could be a very important step on reassuring North Korea about security,” Zagoria said.

Curtis said Abe’s close alignment with the hardliners will complicate U.S. foreign policy in Asia and a new U.S. approach could drive Japan to talk more about going nuclear.

“If we surprise the Japanese, and leave Abe embarrassed and exposed, that will heighten the debate about Japan’s going nuclear, about the unreliability of the U.S. alliance, about the need for Japan to do more on its own . . . so it concerns me whether this (Bush) administration has the ability to keep all these balls in the air,” Curtis said.

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