Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s one-day visit to North Korea on Sept. 17 is likely to have a profound effect on the security situation in Northeast Asia. The two nations started normalization talks in 1991, but thus far no substantial progress has been made because of the alleged abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons program, its test firings of Taepodong missiles and spy ship intrusions into Japanese waters.

These and other incidents have created tensions between North Korea and the United States as well. Relations between North and South Korea have hardly improved.

As to why he is going to Pyongyang, Koizumi said he wants to open the way for resumption of the normalization talks through “frank dialogue” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Koizumi’s courageous decision is welcome.

About a month ago, North Korea sent a clear message to Japan and the U.S., through Russia, that Pyongyang sought serious dialogue with Tokyo and Washington. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who met Kim in Pyongyang on July 28, said the Korean leader was eager to improve ties with Japan and the U.S.

People’s Korea, quoting Ivanov’s statements reported by the Russian ITAR-Tass news agency, said North Korea “is ready for a constructive dialogue with the United States and Japan” and that “such a dialogue would enable discussion on an entire range of problems concerning the Korean Peninsula.” Three days later, on July 31, North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun met separately with Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Brunei on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian security forum.

In August, Cabinet-minister-level officials from the two Koreas met in Seoul; Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin conferred in Vladivostok; Japanese and North Korean Red Cross officials met in Pyongyang; and ranking diplomats from the two nations held a session, also in Pyongyang.

The diplomats’ meeting, held Aug. 26, set a clear agenda for a Koizumi visit to Pyongyang. The joint statement said the two sides agreed on the importance of addressing, with political will, all outstanding issues, including the “settlement of the past” (Japan’s atonement for its colonial rule of Korea), normalization of relations and the humanitarian problem (the abduction issue).

The statement also said the two sides will try to reach agreement within a month to restart the normalization talks at an early date under a package formula aimed at resolving the pending issues in a comprehensive manner.

In a message to Kim conveyed through the diplomats’ meeting, Koizumi said he will make serious efforts toward normalization and expressed hope that Kim will make similar efforts with sincerity. In reply, Kim said he has been encouraged by Koizumi’s message.

Kim’s response strongly indicates that North Korea’s attitude toward Japan has changed. Koizumi’s primary objective in Pyongyang is to get the normalization talks moving again by confirming through face-to-face dialogue with Kim that the two leaders are politically committed to establishing normal ties between the two nations.

The most difficult issue is the alleged abductions. According to Japanese police authorities, at least 11 Japanese citizens were kidnapped and taken to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Settling this issue, an infringement of Japanese sovereignty, is an essential prerequisite for normalization. Thus far North Korea has denied involvement. A settlement will depend on what Kim decides.

Japan and North Korea remain at odds over other issues. Tokyo has demanded a continued freeze on missile testing and a halt to the development and export of missile-related technology. However, Pyongyang has accused Japan of interfering with North Korea’s sovereignty.

To settle the historical account, North Korea has demanded that Japan formally apologize and recognize North Korea’s right to demand reparations for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Japan has rejected “reparations” because Japan and Korea have not been in a state of belligerency. Japan has instead proposed an alternative formula of extending $500 million worth of economic cooperation: the same formula adopted when Japan and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations in 1965.

Aside from paving the way for normalization with North Korea, Koizumi has another crucial objective in Pyongyang: engaging that isolated nation with the international community to help create a framework of peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have increased U.S. pressures on countries developing or suspected of developing missiles and weapons of mass destruction. International tension has been rising as the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush appears to be moving toward attacking Iraq, which Bush has called part of an “axis of evil” that includes Iran and North Korea. Pyongyang’s attempt to improve ties with Japan and the U.S. may represent a shift in diplomatic strategy aimed at deflecting such U.S. pressures.

Japan cannot give any large-scale economic assistance to North Korea unless credible restrictions are placed on that country’s programs to develop missiles and weapons of mass destruction. In this sense, the normalization talks are intertwined with security in Northeast Asia.

Therefore, it is essential that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea cooperate closely in parallel with the normalization progress. There is also a need to work toward creating a six-nation security forum comprising North and South Korea, Japan, the U.S., China and Russia — a plan proposed in 1998 by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

In a way, Koizumi is following a precedent set by the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who visited China in 1972 to establish formal ties. Before Tanaka, in 1956, the late Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama went to Moscow to restore diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.

Following the Cabinet approval of his Soviet trip, Hatoyama said: “I have decided to go to Moscow in spite of my poor health. I believe it is the right conduct for a democratic politician and the noble duty of a political leader to fulfill his public promise on his own responsibility.”

The hope is that Koizumi will do what he should as the leader of Japan. He should deal with Kim with a firm hand, not only to protect national interests but also to help create a new international environment of peace and stability.

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