There have been earthshaking developments on the Korean Peninsula in the past six months. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il began to play a central role in Pyongyang’s international relations, a year after the country started making diplomatic overtures worldwide. North Korea relaxed tense relations with China and Russia and adopted a non-hostile, non-provocative stance toward South Korea and Western countries.

In June 2000, Kim Jong Il met and talked with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung for the first time. His greatest motivation for this venture was, in my opinion, the potential for gaining support from Seoul to improve the North’s infrastructure.

North Korea’s shift implies that it is beginning to take measures that ordinary countries should take. A small country like North Korea would be unable to survive international isolation while suffering from a serious food shortage and severe economic difficulties. It is only natural that North Korea should ask its southern neighbor for help as the first step in obtaining international aid.

Changes in North Korea were greeted with surprise because North Korea has been considered an abnormal country. Pyongyang’s behavior in the past six months, however, has shown that it can act like others do. The question is: How long will this behavior last?

Such fears originate in the fact that North Korea has long avoided doing what it should have done. The country may revert to militancy at any time. It is premature to say that North Korea has passed the point of no return in its policy of reconciliation. We should be wary of a policy reversal in North Korea.

The most important question regarding North Korea is whether it will take the plunge on reducing military tensions, which is crucial to the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

The basic problem regarding weapons of mass destruction is whether North Korea is ready to respect international norms governing such weapons. Joining the Missile Technology Control Regime and signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention will be the first steps for North Korea to become a responsible member of the international community.

Another question, regarding conventional forces, is whether North and South Korea will replace the Korean Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty. If Pyongyang disengages forces from the 38th Parallel and begins military confidence-building measures to move toward arms control and disarmament, prospects for permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula will improve.

Only when North Korea implements all the above-mentioned measures can we wholly welcome changes in the country. It won’t be easy for the country to do so because of Pyongyang’s “army first” policy. If the regime relaxes military tension, it needs to have something in return from South Korea and the international community to quell dissatisfaction in the military. It is unclear when North Korea could obtain such compensation.

North Korea’s immediate priority is to obtain economic aid from South Korea, especially to improve its infrastructure. However, South Korea contends that the North must first take measures to relax military tension, and is unlikely to offer major economic aid anytime soon. Economic difficulties in the South are making Seoul even more cautious about aid to North Korea. It would be great if Pyongyang moved to relax military tensions in consideration of Seoul’s delicate position, but we should not be overly optimistic about possible changes in North Korea’s attitude. In its view, the ball is in the South’s court.

North Korea apparently believes that it deserves economic aid from the South, since it has carried out the inter-Korea summit, the reunion of families separated between North and South, the resumption of regular North-South dialogues and the holding of the first-ever North-South defense ministers’ meeting.

However, South Koreans are reluctant to provide full-scale economic assistance to the North. Opposition parties are demanding concessions from the North, and polls show that most people feel funds should be used for the nation’s own economic revival rather than for aid to North Korea.

Will North Korea be patient enough to deal with the South’s cool response to its request for aid? And will it take the initiative to relax military tensions to break the impasse? While it is possible that North Korea will take steps to relax military tensions, North Korea could also opt to revert to a hostile policy. We should prepare for such a possibility.

Japan’s basic stance toward North Korea remains unchanged: to maintain a resolute stance and conduct cautious negotiations. While some experts contend that Japan should expedite the normalization of relations with North Korea, these arguments, based on a “fear of missing the bus,” are quite emotional.

In the past year, there has been a flurry of efforts at diplomatic normalization and rapprochement between North Korea and many other countries, such as South Korea, the United States and West European countries. Although these moves stemmed more from policy changes in North Korea, North Korea still retains a hostile and provocative stance toward Japan. North Korea started calling Japan a “century-old enemy” after Japan strongly protested a Taepodong ballistic missile test in August 1998.

In negotiations with Japan, North Korea defines its relations with Japan as those between “an aggressor and a victim,” which it says are completely different from normal bilateral relations. North Korea claims that it is unwilling to respond to any Japanese demands before Tokyo apologizes and compensates for its past colonial rule of Korea. Japan is seeking, among other things, the relaxation of military tensions and the settlement of the dispute regarding a dozen missing Japanese allegedly abducted by North Korean agents.

Under these circumstances, Japan is understandably hesitant to improve relations with North Korea. North Korea’s position is a double standard. North Korea, which has condemned the U.S. and South Korea in connection with the Korean War for the past half-century, is not demanding any apologies or compensation for damage it suffered in that war.

North Korea shouldn’t be singled out for its use of double standards, which is a common practice in diplomacy. However, it should be noted that North Korea, despite its “victim/aggressor” relations with South Korea and the U.S., reined in its hostility toward the two countries and chose to improve relations with them. Pyongyang clearly differentiates Japan from the U.S. and South Korea.

Japan should consider a diplomatic overture from a foreign country, as it cannot improve relations with a hostile country that threatens its security.

In dealing with North Korea, Japan has three pending problems — apology and compensation for Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, elimination of North Korean military threats and the settlement of bilateral disputes over the alleged abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents. Japan is the only country with so many serious problems with North Korea. Neither South Korea nor the U.S. are confronted with “the settlement of the past” demand. For European countries, military threats from North Korea do not pose immediate risks. And neither the U.S. nor European countries have disputes with North Korea over missing citizens. Japan is understandably slow in getting on the North Korean bandwagon.

To normalize relations with North Korea, Japan must first settle the pending issues of the abduction of Japanese and Pyongyang’s military threats. The road to diplomatic normalization will be bumpy. The ball is now in North Korea’s court, and until it is returned, Japan should continue patient negotiations to urge North Korea to change its attitude.

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