Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung agreed in their talks in Seoul May 29 that the two nations should coordinate their policies toward North Korea. Mori and Kim also concurred that the North-South Korea summit in Pyongyang, which begins June 12, and the ongoing Japan-North Korea talks on diplomatic normalization will contribute to peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

Mori also hoped to obtain some Asian views from Kim to be used at the Group of Eight summit to be held in southern Japan in July.

Japan, South Korea and the United States are already coordinating policies toward North Korea. G8 support, if given, would strengthen the trilateral policy of coordination. Kim reportedly told Mori that he was hoping to obtain strong G8 support for plans to remove the vestiges of the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula and to promote peaceful coexistence between North and South Korea.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office last January on national defense issues, 56.7 percent, the largest proportion of the respondents, cited the Korean Peninsula situation as a source of security concerns. The rate, up 10 points from a similar survey taken three years earlier, no doubt was influenced by North Korea’s test-firing of the Taepodong ballistic missile over Japan in August 1998 and the invasion of Japanese territorial waters by North Korean spy boats in March 1999.

The close policy coordination among Tokyo, Seoul and Washington, under the leadership of former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, led to North Korea’s agreement to negotiate diplomatic normalization with Japan, following high-level diplomatic talks with the U.S. However, the three nations have delicate differences in policy priorities when it comes to North Korea. Pyongyang is likely to exploit these differences to drive a wedge in the three-nation coordination arrangement.

Washington’s strongest concern is North Korea’s suspected development of nuclear arms, missiles and other weapons of mass destruction. Tokyo, in addition, is seeking a solution to mysteries surrounding the alleged abductions of a dozen Japanese by North Korean agents before normalizing relations with Pyongyang. Seoul, meanwhile, is seeking active exchanges with Pyongyang under Kim’s “Sunshine Policy,” using economic aid as leverage.

The Japan-North Korea diplomatic normalization talks were resumed in April after a seven-and-a-half-year lapse, but the next session, scheduled to be held in late May, was postponed in advance of the North-South summit. There is widespread speculation that the postponement stemmed from difficulties over the missile issue and abduction allegations. North Korea may be trying to use the North-Korea summit to its advantage in dealing with Japan and the U.S.

Mori reportedly told Kim during the Seoul talks that North Korea’s missile and nuclear-arms problems were among the issues of concern to Japan, South Korea and the U.S. The statement was apparently intended to emphasize the importance of the three-nation policy coordination.

North Korea has established diplomatic relations with Australia and Italy — a G8 nation — and has applied to join the ASEAN Regional Forum. North Korea will take part in an ARF ministerial meeting to be held in Bangkok in late July. Pyongyang’s participation in the ARF, an intergovernmental forum on security, is likely to help build international trust, which is essential to peace.

Japan should ponder ways of contributing to peace and stability in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula. Studies should cover long-range plans to create nuclear-weapon-free zones. There are a number of reasons for this proposal. First, the Northeast Asia situation will directly affect Japan’s security. Second, North-South reconciliation would necessitate a review of the U.S. military presence in Japan, South Korea and other regions in Asia and the Pacific. Third, the division of the Korean Peninsula, a byproduct of the Cold War, also followed Japan’s 35-year colonial rule of the peninsula from 1910. It has been 35 years since Tokyo and Seoul normalized their diplomatic relations — the same amount of time Japan spent ruling the peninsula — but Tokyo has yet to establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. To normalize relations with both Koreas, Japan must settle its past problems with the North.

If Japan and the U.S. normalized relations with North Korea, the Japanese-proposed six-nation dialogue on security in Northeast Asia, involving Japan, the U.S., China, Russia and North and South Korea, could materialize. To help expedite Japan-North Korea negotiations, Japan and South Korea should hold another summit after the inter-Korea summit.

Before that, Mori should establish the kind of trust-based relationship with Kim that his late predecessor Keizo Obuchi used to enjoy. Mori’s recent statement that Japan is “a divine nation with the Emperor at its center” stirred distrust among the South Korean public. A South Korean newspaper, recalling the colonial days when Koreans were forced to pay their respects at Shinto shrines, said South Korea “cannot trust a prime minister who fails to understand a neighboring country, nor can it look forward to a future-oriented relationship with Japan.”

The day Mori met with Kim, groups of protesters demonstrated in Seoul, carrying banners that read, “Mori, Go Home to Your Divine Nation.” At a news conference, Korean reporters asked Mori sharp questions regarding his intentions when he made the controversial remark. Mori refused to retract his remark before the Diet or at a special news conference in Tokyo. Controversies are likely to continue in Asia over Mori’s perceptions of Japan’s role in World War II. Good relations with other Asian countries are essential to formulating a long-range plan regarding security in Northeast Asia. Trust-based relations depend on how Japanese leaders consider Japan’s colonial rule and its responsibility for the war.

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