LOS ANGELES — Probably the great foreign fear that overhangs the Japanese — and in some respects is more fearsome than their near-moribund economy — is the looming dark presence of North Korea.

After that dictatorial government launched an unarmed missile over Japan’s head more than two years ago, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung became the most popular Korean politician in Japanese memory — mostly because of his unflagging efforts to defang that neo-Stalinist cobra. But Kim, whose term ends next year, is running out of time to realize the dream of a more peaceful peninsula through patient negotiation with the paranoid Pyongyang gang.

Moreover, it’s now obvious he can’t do it alone — and that U.S. President George W. Bush (who takes a dim view of the whole process) isn’t going to be much help. To whom can Kim turn now? Russia, perhaps, but the government of President Vladimir Putin has many other worries. Japan? Hardly; Japanese diplomacy is generally as engaging as cold pizza.

But last month’s convulsion in Tokyo might just change not only the direction of the country’s economy but also its diplomacy. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, reeling backward like a dying dinosaur, has unexpectedly thrown into the limelight two of the country’s most attractive political figures: Junichiro Koizumi, a self-styled reformer, as the new prime minister, and Makiko Tanaka, the popular daughter of a former prime minister, as the country’s first woman foreign minister.

They look to be taking power at a difficult time in Asia generally, not just in Japan. Bush has offered routine lip service to Kim’s “Sunshine policy,” but he also has cut off U.S. talks with Pyongyang, made no apology for wanting to build new missile defenses aimed in part at North Korea (if not China) and last week seemed to harden the Taiwan line. Noted Jang Sung Min, a Kim aide: “The U.S.’ dependence upon a Cold War strategy . . . is causing the detente mood (on the Korean Peninsula) to collapse.”

Make no mistake about it: North Korea is a very scary proposition. In a little-noted speech at Texas A&M University last month, CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin offered a surprisingly candid view of how official Washington really views Pyongyang: “We still cannot account for all of North Korea’s plutonium . . . And it is busy at work on new missile models that could reach the United States itself with nuclear-sized payloads.” It’s no secret that the U.S. intelligence community is convinced that Pyongyang has at least one or two operational nuclear bombs. “I can tell you that we tend to make our mistakes,” said McLaughlin, who had been candidate Bush’s designated CIA briefer, “not when we convince ourselves that a foreign group or leader might do something, but when we convince ourselves that they will not.”

But worst-case thinking can sometimes engender an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. McLaughlin correctly noted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il seeks to “exploit any daylight he can find” among the U.S., South Korea, Japan and the European Union. But by throwing cold water on peninsular detente — and by reviving elements of Cold War thinking — it’s the new U.S. policy direction that creates the separation.

To be sure, in hoping for boldness from Japanese diplomacy, one runs the risk of being thought giddily, if not insanely, optimistic. But certainly a resurrected sense of opportunity and regional responsibility could make a huge contribution here. The new prime minister, known to be unflinchingly pro-American, and his foreign minister have a historic opportunity to reach out to the besieged Kim in Seoul and help him continue the job of negotiating with the North before East Asia takes a diplomatic and political turn for the worst.

A revived Japanese diplomacy would be worth listening to, especially in Washington. After all, the Japanese live directly in the shadow of the North Korean threat. They know that detente is not only the best policy for defusing tension, but the only sane one. They are at least as capable as anyone, including the new American administration, of not being taken in by North Korean tricks. And, after a big, long sleep, perhaps Japan’s diplomatic time has finally come. Certainly the opportunity is tremendous.

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