Once again, the United States has shown that engagement with North Korea works. After four rounds of talks in as many months, a deal has been struck in New York with the North Korean government on access to an underground site suspected of housing a secret nuclear-weapons project. Japan, South Korea and China have all voiced satisfaction over this development. The agreement still falls short of achieving a substantial easing of tension in the Korean Peninsula, let alone Northeast Asia as a whole, yet it is a welcome development.

The significance of the latest nuclear deal is that North Korea has again shown its willingness to negotiate sensitive political issues. Even though the accord was extracted with pledges of food aid, Washington has managed to convince Pyongyang that engagement is the way to go in bilateral ties. The U.S. has even managed to wrest a promise to resume missile talks that Pyongyang has hitherto steadfastly refused to make.

Japan, too, has been trying for years to work out some sort of political accommodation with Pyongyang, but little has come of this effort except a continuing barrage of anti-Japan rhetoric from North Korea’s official media. If the Japanese are wondering why Washington is succeeding where Tokyo has failed, the simple answer is: All the tough talk to the contrary, the Americans have turned North Korea into a state that is very much dependent on U.S. largess.

Using fuel oil and food aid as the bait, Washington has repeatedly managed to nip dangerous developments on North Korean terrain in the bud. Whether this try-as-you-go policy can eventually succeed is anyone’s guess, but realistically, there is no acceptable alternative path to peace in the divided Korean Peninsula.

From this perspective, the achievement of U.S. special envoy Charles Kartman, who took charge of the difficult negotiations with Pyongyang, deserves special commendation. After all, the controversy surrounding the underground site at Kumchangri will remain just that without the access agreement. Located about 40 km northwest of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the underground site — described by the North Koreans as nothing but a big hole — has aroused the suspicion of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. By successfully nudging North Korea into providing the U.S. with “satisfactory access” to the Kumchangri site, Mr. Kartman has helped reinforce the 1994 “agreed framework,” aimed at dismantling North Korea’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.

With the latest agreement in place, North Korea, ravaged simultaneously by a faltering economy and continuing famine, is set to become more dependent on the U.S. than ever. Actually, North Korea is already a major recipient of U.S. aid in this part of the world, and the 500,000 tons of heavy oil supplied annually by the U.S. under the 1994 accord now account for more than half the total North Korean oil import.

Why such largess to a country the U.S. has long declared a “rogue” state? There are three likely scenarios in North Korea’s future. The unfathomable Pyongyang regime might decide to launch an armed attack on the south, or even on Japan, out of sheer desperation. It might be overthrown in an internal coup d’etat. Or the communist state might simply implode, triggering an outflow of refugees to surrounding areas.

It is against such unpredictable eventualities that the U.S. has been quietly making military preparations while prodding the Japanese government to enact the so-called defense guidelines in order to put more teeth into the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

The crux of the matter is deterrence, not preparation for war. Japan and the U.S. must send the clearest possible message to Pyongyang that adventurism will not be tolerated. The goal, needless to say, is a peaceful resolution of the neither-
peace-nor-war stalemate on the Korean Peninsula. In this sense, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s call for a comprehensive package in dealing with Pyongyang is a move in the right direction.

By contrast, Japan is divided and undecided in its dealings with North Korea, even more so since a North Korean missile flew over Japanese air space last August. Worries and tempers are allowed to flare. Some politicians have even openly suggested launching a “pre-emptive attack” on North Korea to take out its missiles.

Unlike the U.S., both Japan and South Korea face a real threat from North Korea’s missile capability. As Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi leaves for Seoul today for talks with South Korean leaders, Tokyo should seize the opportunity to outline a new and realistic Japanese initiative on North Korea.

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