The meeting between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, scheduled for Tuesday in Pyongyang, will provide a historic opportunity to end decades of enmity between Japan and North Korea. Mr. Koizumi is the first Japanese head of government to visit that country. It remains to be seen, though, whether his one-day trip will produce a breakthrough.

The two nations, often described as “distant neighbors,” still have no diplomatic ties. North Korea, which came into being in 1948, three years before the Korean War started, also has no formal relations with South Korea and the United States. Normalization of Japan-North Korea relations, it is hoped, will provide a powerful incentive for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, the last remaining bastion of the Cold War.

With the era of Soviet communism over and with a reborn Russia forging ties with the U.S. and other Western nations, the existence of an isolated Stalinist state in the northern half of the peninsula remains the largest pocket of instability in East Asia. The Koizumi-Kim summit, which has the blessing of the other key players in the region — the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia — cannot be allowed to fail.

Still, doubt and suspicion linger about North Korea’s aims and intentions. In June this year, North and South Korean patrol ships engaged in a deadly gun battle in the Yellow Sea. Pyongyang expressed its regret over the incident and began a flurry of diplomatic moves to improve ties with other nations as well. Early this month, however, a suspicious ship carrying the North Korean flag was spotted just outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

The raising last Wednesday of a suspected North Korean spy ship from the East China Sea is a fresh reminder of the underlying tensions between the two nations. The vessel had sunk last December following a firefight with Japanese patrol boats. There are other reasons why Japan remains wary of North Korea. Pyongyang has long been suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons. It test-fired a Taepodong ballistic missile over northern Japan in 1998. It allegedly ordered the kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

The mere tendency to doubt that North Korea can be trusted does not obviate the need to try to normalize relations. Japan must try to win the trust of the North Koreans, just as the North Koreans must try to gain Japanese trust. For Japan, this means coming to terms with the “unfortunate past” — its 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula. For North Korea, unraveling the abduction mystery is the best way to show its sincerity toward the Japanese.

The question is, what has happened to the 11 or more Japanese civilians who were allegedly kidnapped to North Korea from Japan and Europe? Settling that question has been, and still is, Tokyo’s primary condition for resuming the stalled normalization talks. So far, Pyongyang has not provided any satisfactory answer. Instead, it has demanded that Japan first agree to compensate it for past colonial rule.

The aim of the summit meeting is to break the deadlock in negotiations that began in 1991. Indications are that the stage is set for a broad-brush agreement by the two leaders — a package deal combining a pledge of compensation (economic aid) and a settlement of the abduction issue. Such an agreement, if reached, will send a strong message, both here and abroad, that the two nations are on track toward normalization.

There is speculation that Pyongyang may provide information about the safety of some of the “missing persons” — the North Korean euphemism for the alleged abductees. That certainly would be considered progress, yet a far cry from the Japanese request for a total settlement: discovering the whereabouts of all abductees and securing their safe return home. As Mr. Koizumi has rightly said, Japan cannot normalize relations without resolving this issue.

Aside from bilateral issues, Japanese diplomacy toward North Korea requires closer coordination with other nations concerned, particularly the U.S. and South Korea. In this regard, the strong support expressed by the two nations for Mr. Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang will strengthen his hand at the summit. But he needs to maintain a reasonable degree of flexibility in dealing with Mr. Kim Jong Il.

It may be that, as government officials here suggest, U.S. President George W. Bush’s denunciation of North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” has induced the country to compromise. Regardless of whether that is true, at this stage in Japan-North Korea relations, a policy of dialogue is clearly far more effective than a policy of confrontation.

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