Frustrated with attempts to re-engage with the Bush administration, North Korea has reached out to alternative sources of support, sidestepping the United States for the moment by turning to Tokyo. Like a good boxer who knows how to bob and weave to elude his opponents and then land a telling blow, Pyongyang’s diplomacy seeks largess at the lowest cost, again demonstrating an ability to use foreign powers to its own advantage.

Paradoxically, the U.S., the power with the most at stake and in the strongest position to influence developments on the Korean Peninsula, has moved to the back of the pack under Bush’s strident brand of “axis of evil” diplomacy while the two weakest players politically — Russia and Japan — have moved to the front rank diplomatically.

In the latest round of Great Power Korean diplomacy, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is set to journey to Pyongyang on Tuesday, catapulting Tokyo into the forefront of inter-Korean diplomacy for the first time since World War II, an historic development whose significance should not be minimized.

Indeed, this marks Japan emergence as a genuine dialogue partner in engaging the North on a range of issues of vital importance on behalf of its allies, the U.S. and South Korea, a development all the more remarkable considering the high priority the U.S. attaches to North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil” and the delicate diplomacy Seoul is currently pursuing vis-a-vis Pyongyang in which Japanese intermediation would have previously been seen as unthinkable.

Further, Japan is not merely negotiating normalization bilaterally with North Korea but advancing a regional security dialogue multilaterally, in effect, taking the first tentative steps toward a post-Cold War political role 50 years in the making.

This act of daring statesmanship has several explanations on both sides. Kim desperately needs to broaden his political base — which until now has been limited to Russia and China — if he is to compete effectively with the South’s “sunshine policy,” which has the backing of all four powers with a major stake in Korean affairs as well as the European Union.

At the same time, by legitimizing a Japanese role in inter-Korean relations, Kim has now put South Korean President Kim Dae Jung on the defensive by detracting attention away from the long-sought second inter-Korean summit. In effect, to put a summit with the Japanese leader ahead of the latter can hardly be pleasing to Kim Dae Jung unless it were to facilitate a Kim Jong Il visit to Seoul, a possibility that cannot be ruled out.

Nor should a pot of gold of potentially billions to bankroll a bankrupt regime as part of a normalization package be overlooked, especially handy at a time when the North has embarked on sweeping economic reform measures featuring cash and carry for basic commodities such as rice in lieu of state-supported subsidies. For Pyongyang, a cash cushion, e.g., insurance against adverse developments, could not come at a better time.

But what does Koizumi have to gain from this bold diplomatic venture? After all, Japan and North Korea are not at war, although one would hardly know it from the war of words that has raged between the two capitals over the past several years and a string of incidents at sea. But rather than a formula of land for peace, Koizumi may be bearing an offer of cash for peace.

Indeed, no other nation poses as immediate danger to Japan’s security as North Korea — the closest target of North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat inasmuch as South Korea is already under the gun conventionally. And there is no better place to demonstrate that Japan is capable of playing a political as well as an economic role in the world beginning in its own backyard.

A summit success would also be a vindication of the trilateral approach that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea have been pursuing vis-a-vis the North begun by William Perry, former U.S. secretary of defense and North Korean policy coordinator, in an effort to contain the North Korean threat from weapons of mass destruction. More concretely, were Koizumi to secure the expulsion of Red Army terrorists from North Korea, the U.S might be obliged to remove the North from its terrorist list.

However, while Japan brings a lot to the table, it also demands a lot in return. Moreover, the return of the Red Army hijackers, an accounting of missing Japanese thought to have been abducted by North Korean agents and an end to the suspected sea borne infiltration of illicit drugs constitute impediments to overcome on the road to diplomatic normalization, not policy departures in themselves.

More fundamentally, Koizumi needs to demonstrate a long-term vision and outline the constructive role that Japan is prepared to play on the peninsula and in the region without seeming to usurp Seoul’s primary role or threaten other regional players, China and Russia. This will require diplomatic finesse and surefootedness of the variety he has yet to display. Time and again he has angered the South — over a Japanese textbook controversy and his visits to Yasukuni Shrine — only to display a contriteness that has won him genuine affection.

Certainly relations between the two nations are on the upswing following the successful cohosting of the World Cup. The time is ripe for Japan’s re-emergence as a peninsula player while leaving its historical baggage behind. For this reason, Koizumi should not return to Tokyo without first stopping off in Seoul.

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