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SEOUL — Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on Tuesday represents the biggest step in relations between the two countries since the end of World War II in 1945. Koizumi, though, must keep a cool head in the face of any strategic ploy that the North may try to pull off at the negotiating table. He should pay careful attention to detail while addressing the big issues at stake.

The North Korean leader’s move to meet with Koizumi indicates a stark change in Pyongyang’s policy, which has put the United States first in every political step since 1993. In the eyes of the North Korean leadership, the governments in Seoul and Tokyo were just “yes men,” happily helping Washington maintain hegemony in Northeast Asia. The leadership in Pyongyang reasoned that if it could iron out its differences with Washington on security issues and have its regime officially recognized, better relations with Seoul and Tokyo would naturally follow.

That line of reasoning was largely validated in 1994, when North Korea and the U.S. worked out the Agreed Framework to freeze the North’s nuclear program — without direct input in the negotiations from South Korea or Japan. Yet the two sidelined players came to bear much of the financial burden of implementing the pact: Seoul was to pay $3 billion and Tokyo $1 billion toward construction of two light-water nuclear reactors Washington agreed to build in the North.

The North’s strategy peaked in late 2000. In October, Kim Jong Il dispatched his right-hand man, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to Washington, where he signed a North Korea-U.S. joint statement. The vice marshal’s visit was reciprocated by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who visited the North’s capital about a month later. Former President Bill Clinton even had designs on making a historic visit to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with Kim as his final curtain call, but ran out of time before his term was up.

Pyongyang could only stand by and watch as the gains they had made with the U.S. were thrown out the window when Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, lost the 2000 presidential election. President George W. Bush wasted little time, branding the North, along with Iran and Iraq, an “axis of evil” and making clear he is in no hurry to normalize ties with the impoverished totalitarian state.

Even President Kim Dae Jung, the champion of the “sunshine policy” and the first South Korean leader to meet face-to-face with the North’s leader, lost much of his luster in Bush’s eyes. With only four months left in Kim’s term, his ruling Millennium Democratic Party seems to be falling apart at the seams after bitter losses in a number of National Assembly and local elections.

Lee Hoi Chang, the leader of the opposition Grand National Party and someone whose philosophy would jive better with the hardliners in Washington, is currently the most likely winner of the December election. He has already promised to take a tougher line with the North, including forcing it to make concessions in return for South Korean aid.

Talk of U.S. preparations to attack another dictator half a world away does not make the North feel more confident about its prospects for negotiating directly with the decidedly hawkish administration in Washington.

Once Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein is out, who is to say the civilian leadership at the Pentagon would not set their sights on Kim Jong Il? An attack on the North may be unlikely, even improbable, but it is not impossible.

In short, the North feels cornered.

Pyongyang’s first option is an all-out effort to befriend the South in the name of peace and reconciliation. The North, after constantly freezing ties with Seoul from time to time in the past year, is joining in flashy inter-Korean exchanges as never before — reopening ministerial talks, economic talks, family reunions, military talks, railroad construction, an inter-Korean soccer match. At the very least, the contacts should keep a possibly more hawkish administration in Seoul from putting too much pressure on the North. But getting all buddy-buddy with Seoul is not enough to keep Washington off the North’s back entirely.

Enter Koizumi.

The summit with Japan helps the North in a number of ways. It drives a wedge, however small, into the U.S.-Seoul-Tokyo alliance. That fissure could force Washington to approach the North for talks on better terms than it would otherwise. Kim Jong Il could win promises of significant food and economic aid from Koizumi. The meeting could also rejuvenate the “Dear Leader’s” image abroad.

Given the complex nature of the issues to be discussed at the summit — alleged abductions of Japanese citizens, missiles, nuclear inspections, normalization of ties — most observers agree the talks will be mostly symbolic. The joint statement will likely express support for the peace process on the peninsula, the need for Japan and the North to work toward formal diplomatic ties and a few other vague pledges about the future. Some specific promises will also likely be made.

Judging by the South’s experience in negotiating with Pyongyang, Koizumi would be well advised not to place too much hope on big, sweeping promises about diplomatic ties and other things to take place down the road. As they say, the devil is in the details.

He should be very clear in terms when talking with the North. Early in the meeting Kim will likely praise Koizumi to the skies, throwing around adjectives like “bold” and “heroic.” Koizumi must stay poised, because in between the praise Kim will likely look to gain a concession or two. Make sure to explain and repeat every detail if necessary, and don’t commit to too much.

When negotiating on issues important to people back home, such as the alleged abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, he should be absolutely clear about implementation dates. The North has so far kept two of the 20 promises it made at the 2000 North-South summit.

But Seoul is also to blame for the poor track record as it did not force the North to commit to more specific terms in the joint statement.

Koizumi should be careful with symbolic gestures the North may take advantage of later on. President Kim Dae Jung was cautious about every step during his stay in Pyongyang. He made sure to avoid visiting any symbolic places like Mansudae Assembly Hall, where a statue of Kim Il Sung stands, or graves of so-called revolutionary heroes. He also strictly addressed his counterpart as “chairman of the National Defense Commission” instead of “general secretary” and refrained from wearing the symbolic red scarf offered him by the North’s welcoming delegation.

Finally, I would like to point out that there is something unsettling to both Seoul and Pyongyang about Japan’s proposal for six-way talks on Korean Peninsula issues involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. The focus should be on the nations that actually occupy the peninsula. Perhaps the proposal would sound better if Japan described the talks as a kind of two-plus-four arrangement.

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