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WASHINGTON — Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s trip to North Korea next Tuesday is, in many ways, a double-edged sword. At first glance, the trip appears to be a positive development. In what has become the norm in Asian diplomacy of late, the surprise announcement reflects positively on Japan’s attempts to play a leadership role in the region.

Koizumi appears to be taking on the thorny problem of North Korea at a time when the fate of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” remains uncertain at the end of his presidency and U.S. ambivalence about engaging North Korea remains quite high. Though Koizumi is reported to have caucused with President George W. Bush prior to the announcement, one could also see the trip as another veiled effort by the region to persuade the United States to soften its hardline approach to North Korea.

Combined with Kim Jong Il’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the persistent entreaties by Beijing and Seoul, Koizumi’s trip could be seen as another voice in the regional chorus for Bush to get on the engagement bandwagon traversing the Korean Peninsula.

So kudos to Japan for taking the initiative. But the prime minister needs to be careful of what comes out at the end of this visit. Koizumi cannot fall into the same trap as Kim Dae Jung, who returned from Pyongyang with handshakes and photo ops but no substantive agreements. Smiling faces are not going to persuade the hawks in Washington. At the same time, negotiating the serious stuff will be far from easy. The key issue domestically for Japan will be a North Korean concession concerning the alleged abductions of Japanese nationals by the North. This is the minimum for a successful meeting; otherwise, there is no domestic constituency in Japan for rapprochement with Pyongyang.

The most meaningful issue for Japan and the U.S., however, will relate to the North’s Nodong missiles. More than 100 of these ballistic missiles, unlike the longer-range Taepodong missile, are actually deployed in North Korea. Moreover, any logical extrapolation of North Korea’s strategic doctrine suggests that these missiles are targeted at Japan (to deter the U.S. and Japan from supporting the South in a military confrontation). The North refused to discuss Nodong deployments during negotiations at the end of the Clinton administration. Japan’s quid pro quo in prying these missiles away from Pyongyang is, of course, diplomatic recognition and cash.

So herein lies the dilemma: Koizumi cannot come back from Pyongyang with simple handshakes. He must deliver, especially since the North so badly disrespected Tokyo in normalization talks at the end of 2000 — when Japanese negotiators were led to believe that the basic outlines of a package were in the making. At same time, the agreements that are meaningful (i.e., missiles) are not likely to be in the offing. Facing pressure for results, Koizumi might fall into the trap of handing over some carrots (cash) for small incremental and symbolic concessions by the North. Such a summit might play in Seoul, but it won’t play in Washington or Tokyo.

Behind the histrionics of the impending meeting between Koizumi and Kim Jong Il sits a deeper and more disturbing question. North Korea’s attempts to reach out to Putin, and now to Koizumi, appear like positive tension-reducing developments in the region, but they also have the unintended effect of widening a gap in beliefs about policy toward North Korea between Washington and its allies in Asia. For those allies, the Koizumi trip validates once again the merits of engagement and Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy. They believe that engagement will eventually bring the North around.

But for the Bush administration, Koizumi’s trip proves the efficacy of the harder line: Calling the regime “evil” and taking the “hawk,” not sunshine, approach to engagement has pressed the North into its conciliatory mode. The greater the opening made by North Korea, the wider this perception gap between the U.S. and its allies in Asia will grow.

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