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It came as a big surprise when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced Friday he will visit North Korea on Sept. 17 for face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. “A summit meeting is essential to further progress,” Mr. Koizumi told reporters. “I want to find clues for resolving outstanding issues through direct dialogue.”

We welcome the decision, which represents Japan’s willingness to put the past behind it and establish normal ties with communist North Korea. Reports from North Korea indicate Pyongyang is reciprocating. The planned one-day trip to Pyongyang — the culmination of more than a year of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda — will be considered successful if it lays the groundwork for normalization talks.

Mr. Koizumi will be the second Japanese head of government, after the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, to visit a nation with which Japan had had no official ties at the time. Mr. Tanaka’s 1972 visit to Beijing led immediately to the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations. Such a dramatic turn of events is unlikely this time around. But there is no doubt that the coming summit meeting between the two leaders, following the historic inter-Korean breakthrough in June 2000, will turn a new page not only in Japan-North Korea relations but also in the history of other relations involving the Korean Peninsula.

The issues at stake, notably the alleged kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Koreans and Pyongyang’s demands for Japanese compensation for its colonial rule of Korea, are difficult and complex. But one can reasonably expect that some meaningful progress will be made toward removing these obstacles to normalization. Without such a prospect at the very least, Mr. Koizumi would not have decided to meet Mr. Kim.

Without a doubt, normalization of Tokyo-Pyongyang ties will contribute materially to improving inter-Korean relations and to promoting peace and stability in East Asia and the rest of the world. It is abnormal that two neighbors should remain strangers more than half a century after the end of World War II. Their isolation is in stark contrast to Japan-South Korea relations, which were normalized in 1965.

Normalization talks between Japan and North Korea — which started in 1991 — have a history of failures and setbacks. The last round of talks, in 2000, collapsed over the abduction allegation and other issues. Earlier this year, however, a series of bilateral meetings — including those of Red Cross officials, foreign ministers and working-level diplomats — created momentum for the resumption of full-dress negotiations.

At a meeting of ranking diplomats earlier last month, agreement was reached on settling all outstanding issues in a package deal. Quietly the two sides also set the pace for a Koizumi-Kim summit, indicating that a breakthrough might be reached under the initiative of the two leaders. North Korea’s drive for detente, including its statement of apology over the recent Yellow Sea gun battle that killed South Korean sailors, must have also prompted Mr. Koizumi to visit Pyongyang.

It is too optimistic to expect satisfactory results from the summit. For Japan, the biggest issue is humanitarian: the fate of 11 Japanese citizens who Japanese authorities believe were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and the 1980s. The North Korean Red Cross, which lists them as “missing,” has promised a search, but as yet nothing is known about their safety. To make the summit a success, Pyongyang must demonstrate its sincerity in dealing with this issue.

Tokyo, for its part, must show its sincerity in dealing with the compensation issue, specifically North Korean demands for a formal apology and redress of claims related to colonial rule. Japan is ready to provide economic aid, not compensation — a formula worked out to normalize ties with South Korea. Tokyo has maintained that Japan is not in a position to offer compensation because it never waged war with North Korea.

It is unrealistic even to hope that these and other issues (including North Korea’s missile development program) will be resolved at a single sweep. But it is also true that in a dictatorship like North Korea it is impossible to solve problems without orders from the top — which raises hope that candid dialogue between Prime Minister Koizumi and General Secretary Kim may open the way for a package solution.

Mr. Koizumi’s forthcoming visit is supported by U.S. President George W. Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. It may be that President Bush, who once portrayed North Korea as a member of an “axis of evil,” is shifting from confrontation to dialogue. The trip is also backed by Russia and China. Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Kim must try to measure up to such international expectations.

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