North not priority of summiteers, Obama

by Mariko Yasumoto

Kyodo News

SEOUL — Despite their frequent meetings, Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak have produced no substantial results on issues linked to North Korea, dashing hopes that the two leaders may achieve a breakthrough in the deadlock on the Korean Peninsula.

Since taking office last September, Aso has met Lee five times, including Monday’s summit in Seoul, at which the two leaders only agreed on the need to continue efforts under the six-party framework and trilaterally with the United States to denuclearize North Korea and resolve the issue of Japanese abductees.

Political pundits and observers said the leaders, who are often described as tougher on Pyongyang than their predecessors, are unable to engage in full-fledged talks on regional issues as they struggle to deal with domestic problems. These include the stalemate in Diet deliberations in Japan and recessions in both countries that have resulted in mass layoffs. Both Aso and Lee are also plagued by public doubts about their leadership abilities.

Aso was often described as a “hardliner” during his term as foreign minister from 2005 to 2007. During his Liberal Democratic Party presidential campaign last year, he expressed his eagerness to resolve the issue of North Korea’s past abductions of Japanese nationals and was widely expected to focus more on pressure than dialogue in dealing with Pyongyang compared with his more dovish predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda.

The government lists 17 Japanese as having been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and ’80s, of whom five were repatriated in 2002.

It was also believed Lee would get tough on North Korea when he became president last February, marking a drastic shift from his predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun, who adopted the “Sunshine” appeasement policy toward Pyongyang.

But struggling with sluggish support ratings, “domestic politics and economic reform are (Lee’s) priority at the moment,” said Geun Lee, associate politics professor at Seoul National University.

The stalled talks between Japan and South Korea on issues related to North Korea can also be blamed on a lack of firm mutual trust and differences in perception, said Kazuhiro Asano, a politics professor at Sapporo University.

“South Korea’s biggest interest has always been to achieve the unity of the Korean Peninsula, while Japan has placed priority on the abduction issue,” Asano said.

But the abduction issue also affects South Korea, as hundreds of its nationals are estimated to have been forcibly taken to the North.

The prospects for substantial progress on North Korean issues, the abductions in particular, could become even dimmer once U.S. President-elect Barack Obama takes office later this month, political analysts said.

“The Obama administration is likely to shift many U.S. defense assets, including what it has on the Korean Peninsula, to Afghanistan, and subsequently to try to keep on good terms with China and North Korea so as to stabilize the region,” said Takashi Kawakami, a professor at Takushoku University’s Overseas State of Affairs Research Institute.

Seoul National University’s Lee echoed the view, saying the new administration will likely maintain the six-party framework, but there will be “more direct bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea” than before.

As a result of closer relations between Washington and Pyongyang, Kawakami predicts Japan will probably be unable to protest over the abduction issue as loudly as it has done and may be forced to join other countries in providing economic and food assistance to the hermit state.

Similarly, if the U.S. and North Korea become closer, South Korea will have no choice but to adopt an engagement policy toward Pyongyang, as it does not want to be kept out of the loop or held responsible for any rising tensions on the political and security front at a time when its economy is mired in a severe recession and its currency is plunging, the political analysts said.

Trilateral security relations involving Japan, South Korea and the U.S. are also expected to undergo a drastic change under the Obama administration, since the U.S. will also want to maintain closer ties with China rather than Japan and South Korea, they said.

“The United States is likely to take a more pragmatic track and prioritize its relations with North Korea and China over what it has had with Japan and South Korea,” Kawakami said. “If that happens, it would be a serious situation for both Japan and South Korea.”

But the analysts added that U.S. attention will remain focused for some time on efforts to revive the country’s flagging economy and to cope with the situation in the Middle East.

“U.S. attention will be directed to Europe and the Middle East, and East Asia will come last at any rate,” Sapporo University’s Asano said.

Aso’s visit to South Korea marked the second round of what the two countries term shuttle diplomacy.

“The point of this shuttle diplomacy is for the two leaders to go back and forth, and the trip does not necessarily need to generate substantial results,” a government source said.

But the two countries may no longer be able to remain so sanguine when the entire situation in East Asia is set for a major transformation.