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Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi’s visit to South Korea over the weekend, coming after the naval clash between North and South Korean patrol boats in the Yellow Sea in late June, has served to spotlight the volatility of inter-Korean relations. The diplomatic fallout from the sea battle, in which the South Korean side suffered heavy casualties, is again casting a long shadow over the Korean Peninsula.

For Japan, as well as for the United States and South Korea, the question, as always, is how best to respond. Their basic policy has been to engage North Korea through dialogue. They should stay the course. Negotiation, not confrontation, is the only sensible way to ease tensions between the two Koreas, which still face off across a demilitarized zone despite the end of the Cold War.

In her talks Saturday with President Kim Dae Jung and Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Choi Sung Hong, Foreign Minister Kawaguchi reaffirmed the need for dialogue. She told them Japan will continue to cooperate with South Korea and the U.S. to bring North Korea into the international community. At the beginning of this month, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Kim agreed that the two nations should maintain a policy of engagement.

However, developments following the gun battle are not encouraging. The U.S. administration has canceled its plan to resume high-level political talks with Pyongyang in mid-July. In South Korea, President Kim’s “sunshine policy” is coming under fire from opposition forces. Moreover, with his two sons involved in corruption scandals, Mr. Kim finds himself in an increasingly tight spot. In Japan, too, anti-North sentiments are growing.

The Yellow Sea incident remains a mystery. The South Korean defense ministry says it was started by a “premeditated surprise attack” by North Korean forces. Pyongyang blames the South Korean military for launching a “first strike under U.S. protection.” One thing is clear: Despite occasional moves toward detente, the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains essentially as unstable as it was when the Korean War ended almost half a century ago.

A similar clash broke out in June 1999, also in the Yellow Sea, with the North Korean side suffering many casualties. But tensions dramatically eased after June 2000 when President Kim made a groundbreaking trip to Pyongyang for face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Who could have predicted then that another naval clash would occur in the same area?

It would be rash to conclude, however, that the latest flareup has dashed hopes for inter-Korean rapprochement. But, following as it did the historic summit agreement to end the standoff and work toward peaceful coexistence, one cannot help but wonder about the efficacy, if not the spirit, of that agreement.

More immediately, the June 29 sea clash has set back U.S. efforts to mend relations with North Korea. President George W. Bush may still see the North as a member of the “axis of evil,” but more recently he indicated a degree of flexibility — by deciding, for example, to restart talks with Pyongyang. Now that the decision has been scrapped, immediate prospects for dialogue are uncertain at best.

Uncertainty also defines Japan’s relations with North Korea. Plans to hold Red Cross talks around June, aimed at finding Japanese allegedly adducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, have not materialized. The problem of these “missing persons” — the North has consistently denied the allegations — is a major obstacle to the normalization of relations.

Japan’s public opinion of North Korea has also hardened since a gun battle between a suspected North Korean spy ship and Japan Coast Guard patrol boats that took place in the East China Sea last December. That incident, along with the abduction dispute, is also clouding the future of normalization talks.

Pyongyang, in an apparent attempt at damage control, has appealed for dialogue and cooperation since the latest conflict in the west sea. The trouble is that the communist dictatorship is prone to a “policy of brinkmanship” that seems designed to take advantage of military clashes and heightened tensions with its southern neighbor. Dialogue and confidence building will be impossible unless such a reckless policy is abandoned.

There is hope, however. North Korea is expected to send Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun to a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei late this month. Paek, it is recalled, abruptly canceled his appearance at last year’s ARF meeting. The coming session, if he attends it, will show whether Pyongyang is ready for dialogue.

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