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I’m not sure whether to be cautiously optimistic or pessimistic about Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to North Korea next Tuesday, but either way, “caution” is the watchword.

I am strongly in favor of increased dialogue with North Korea, by South Korea and the United States as well as by Japan. The fact that Pyongyang suddenly seems serious about engaging in high-level discussions with all three simultaneously presents an opportunity that should not be missed or squandered, even if it must be approached carefully.

Some may question Pyongyang’s motives and such questioning appears appropriate, given North Korea’s previous track record of on-again, off-again negotiations and broken promises. But more important than guessing what Pyongyang expects to get from its current round of “smile diplomacy” is a clear understanding and articulation by Tokyo of what it hopes to achieve, both individually and cooperatively with Seoul and Washington, as a result of this bold diplomatic initiative.

Tokyo has been careful not to set expectations too high. Koizumi acknowledged that he was “anticipating no settlement of all the issues” that currently separate the two countries but that this was “the only way to break the ice” and get the normalization process back on track. He also acknowledged the risks involved. “I will stake my political life,” Koizumi asserted, on what he himself described as a “bold gamble.”

This has led some pundits to speculate that Koizumi may be so eager for a successful visit that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will somehow be able to leverage this against the Japanese leader, to Japan’s (and America’s) detriment. I think not!

The risk for Koizumi is not in accomplishing too little but in giving away too much. Awareness of this should put a natural brake on how much he will be willing to offer. North Korea’s heavily criticized failure to practice even asymmetrical reciprocity in its dealings with South Korea should also cause Tokyo to insist on some deliverables in advance of (or at least simultaneous with) any aid or development assistance that may be forthcoming as a result of the visit.

One such deliverable is some forward progress on determining the status of the dozen or more missing Japanese citizens suspected of having been kidnapped by North Korea. The failure of at least a few of these individuals to suddenly surface (or their fates to become known) during or shortly after the visit will cause many to proclaim the visit a failure, regardless of whatever else is accomplished.

What will increase the Japanese prime minister’s flagging popularity at home and abroad will be the opportunity the trip provides for Koizumi to directly express Tokyo’s concerns about North Korean activities, even while expressing his nation’s regrets for its own past misdeeds. Koizumi’s anticipated apology, along the lines of similar statements made to the South, can help begin what is sure to be a long, drawn-out (and, for Japan, ultimately expensive) healing process.

While it is probably too much to hope for, some acknowledgment in return by the North’s Dear Leader that the unresolved state of hostility between Japan and the North since the end of the Japanese occupation has resulted in occasional unfriendly acts by the North toward Japan, too, could help create some Japanese good will, which will sorely be needed once the subject of compensation packages is negotiated. Such a comment by the North could also help defuse the lingering “spy boat” controversy, which will likely resurface shortly after Koizumi’s visit.

While some have argued that the visit could undercut Washington’s security objectives on the Korean Peninsula, the reverse is also true. North Korea might find it easier (not to mention potentially more rewarding) to make a pledge to continue its current missile-test moratorium beyond the Jan. 1, 2003, scheduled end date to Japan (over whose territory the missiles fly) than to an American interlocutor. The end result would be the same: the elimination of a potential crisis point in U.S.-North Korean relations that all concerned parties would just as soon avoid. This would be a relatively low-cost diplomatic gift to Koizumi, since it is clearly in Pyongyang’s interest to avoid the political and economic consequences a resumption in missile testing would most certainly bring.

A Koizumi call for a greater effort by Pyongyang to come into full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency — a future stumbling block in the implementation of the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework — would no doubt also be welcomed by Washington and would certainly be appropriate, given that Japan (with its robust civilian nuclear energy program) is the most closely monitored of all the IAEA member states.

Reports that the U.S. was “blind-sided” by the visit also appear overstated. While a great (if only partially successful) effort was expended to keep the deliberations secret, all evidence points to careful coordination between Tokyo and both Washington and Seoul. Koizumi neither sought nor required “permission” from either nation, but the close coordination among the three, originally instituted as part of the “Perry process” (initiated by former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry), remains alive and well.

Finally, some have argued that Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang and the possible resumption of normalization talks will put additional pressure on Washington to send its own high-level delegation to Pyongyang, especially when combined with the parallel resumption of high-level dialogue and prospects for some actual real movement on North-South initiatives such as the road and rail link across the DMZ. One hopes that this is true.

At last weekend’s Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group meeting in Seoul, senior representatives from Washington, Tokyo and Seoul all endorsed the Koizumi visit. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly — previously earmarked to lead the first Bush administration senior delegation to Pyongyang — also reaffirmed Washington’s “readiness to hold comprehensive and unconditional talks with North Korea.” But no date has yet been set.

Even Washington’s hardliners would have difficulty arguing against a Kelly visit if genuine progress is made during Koizumi’s historic diplomatic mission. Of course, the reverse could also be true, if sensitive issues are completely avoided and Koizumi returns empty-handed.

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