LONDON — Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will pay an official visit to North Korea this week, where he will meet with dictator Kim Jong Il. He wants to deal with a number of issues between Japan and North Korea, including Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese nationals. No doubt Koizumi would also like to find out whether it is feasible to establish full diplomatic relations between the two countries. Both he and Kim will be conscious of the fact that North Korea is one of three countries named by U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this year as belonging to the “axis of evil.”

Koizumi is going to North Korea with the blessing of the United States and South Korea. It is doubtful whether the U.S. is optimistic that any real good can come from the visit, but as North Korea is not its top-priority target, it probably sees no harm arising even if the visit enhances Kim’s international stature.

Is it possible that Koizumi can persuade Kim that it is to his advantage to open up his regime and at the very least provide his people with food? Common sense suggests the answer is yes, but why should Kim respond favorably to overtures from Japan when it has failed to respond to friendly approaches from South Korea?

What has Japan got to offer? It can be a conduit to the U.S., but North Korea already has plenty of opportunities to communicate with Washington if it wants to. There is the possibility of significant aid from Japan, but North Korean demands for large reparations will surely fall on deaf ears, if only because Japan would seem to have nothing to gain by offering to support the bankrupt North Korean economy. Moreover, the mood in Japan is turning against any expansion of overseas aid, and given the state of the economy, Tokyo is hardly in a position to dish out large sums of money even if the political will existed to do so.

Kim may see this visit as another step in improving his relations with his neighbors. He has tried hard to get closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, if only to offset his apparently deteriorating relationship with China, where North Koreans, trying to escape from famine and oppression at home, find life in the impoverished Chinese countryside to be an improvement.

It is not easy to understand why Koizumi is making this visit, which could end in failure. Japanese voters are unlikely to be greatly interested. The abduction issue has been poisoning relations for many years, but are the abducted people still alive? In the unlikely case that a full solution to this problem were found during the visit it would be a plus for Koizumi’s prestige, but it seems unlikely that such a prize could have more than a marginal effect on his position within the Liberal Democratic Party. He can’t be thinking of asking for Kim’s help over the disputed Northern Territories, a much more important issue for Japan that continues to bedevil Tokyo’s relations with Moscow.

There are, of course, arguments for and against trying to soften up hostile regimes rather than isolating them and trying to apply diplomatic and economic sanctions. Economic sanctions very rarely seem to work, and often the leaders against whom such sanctions are aimed continue to enjoy their privileges while the ordinary people suffer.

Even so, regimes that abuse human rights and oppress ordinary people — such as that in Myanmar — must be shown as the tyrannical regimes that they are. The stick and carrot have both been used with Myanmar’s despots without much effect so far. Dialogue and carrots are not favored by Myanmar’s democrats, who are still struggling to gain recognition and who look askance at the soft approach favored by Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad.

One of the worst regimes in Africa is that of tyrant Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, who seems determined to let his people starve rather than agree to sensible arrangements covering farms belonging to white people. The European Union, the British Commonwealth and the U.S. have applied limited sanctions against Zimbabwe, but Mugabe has laughed at these measures. Only South Africa could probably put effective pressure on Mugabe, but so far President Thabo Mbeki has been reluctant to do anything. Mugabe has shown that he is not willing to listen to reason and “supping” with this particular devil can only end in tears.

In Iran, hardliners and reformists are competing for power, with the former ascendant. In view of the strong anti-American sentiment in Iran, there are dangers that praise for the reform faction will be counterproductive. But there is a strong case for attempting to establish dialogue with those in Iran who are willing to hold a reasoned discussion of outstanding issues.

Bush’s denunciation of Iran as part of his “axis of evil” has made it more difficult to develop a dialogue. The hardline Islamists in Iran do pose a potential danger to all moderate people, and it is understandable that the Americans do not want to see Iran develop nuclear weapons, but the danger is more potential than actual and “supping” with reform-minded Iranians could be helpful.

The most dangerous of the three states in Bush’s “axis of evil” is clearly Iraq, where President Saddam Hussein makes no secret of his wish to force America out of the Middle East and of his intention to develop weapons of mass destruction. If he has biological and chemical weapons and is developing nuclear weapons, it would be a serious threat to peace. The Americans claim to have intelligence to confirm this. Unfortunately, the CIA’s reputation for reliability is not high, but the people of the world have to be convinced of the imminence and reality of the threat from Iraq before they will endorse unilateral American military action.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has poured scorn on the value of United Nations inspections, but at the least a further effort should be made via the Security Council to get Hussein to accept inspections without any strings. Military action may be unavoidable if he continues to prevaricate and adequate evidence of the threat is made public. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has tried hard to have a dialogue with Iraqi leaders, but he has failed so far. There does not seem to be any advantage in “supping” with the Iraqi devil.

Anyone “supping with the devil” needs to be skeptical about what is offered to him and ensure that the devil does not win the propaganda battle that inevitably follows.

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