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North Korea’s acknowledgment of its involvement in the kidnappings of Japanese nationals marks a major milestone in the off-and-on normalization talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang that began in 1991. With the negotiations resuming next month, following Tuesday’s summit agreement between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the two nations are now closer than at any time since 1945 to improving their hostile relationship.

The road to reconciliation will be tortuous. The minimum necessary condition is that North Korea never again commit similar acts of inhumanity against Japanese citizens. The challenge for Japan is to conduct a broader range of diplomatic activities to help promote regional interests in and around the Korean Peninsula.

The abductions took place “in the course of abnormal Japan-North Korea relations,” as the Pyongyang declaration states. More specifically, the incidents resulted from North Korea’s Cold War strategy that placed heavy emphasis on the military. In fact, many South Koreans are also listed as “missing,” allegedly because of state-sponsored terrorism in that era.

North Korea has pledged to prevent the recurrence of “regrettable problems,” meaning not only abductions but also intrusions of spy ships into Japanese waters. The test for Pyongyang is to match words with deeds. It has yet to convince the Japanese, as well as the Americans and the South Koreans, that it is really seeking peace.

At the inter-Korean summit held in Pyongyang in 2000, Mr. Kim promised to make a return visit to Seoul. He has yet to deliver on that promise. It is heartening, though, that the two Koreas have just started work to reconstruct their disconnected rail and road links — a joint project that also involves removal of land mines in the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula. With the North Korean military beginning to take a forward-looking stance, it is hoped that more confidence-building measures will be taken after South Korea elects its new leader in December’s presidential election.

It is unclear at the moment how the United States will act toward North Korea. Immediately after taking office, President George W. Bush expressed his dislike of Mr. Kim’s regime, throwing cold water on South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of engagement. In June last year, the Bush administration indicated a willingness to seek dialogue through continuation of the Agreed Framework, for example — but its hardline position seems basically unchanged.

For the U.S., now preoccupied with a possible attack on Iraq, North Korea is not a nation of immediate priority. Still, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains the central aim of U.S. diplomacy. In the Pyongyang declaration, North Korea pledged to continue its moratorium on missile launches beyond 2003 and to abide by all “international agreements,” possibly including international nuclear inspections. In Washington’s eye, however, these commitments may not be sufficient to warrant a resumption of dialogue.

For North Korea, which faces serious economic difficulties, the highest priority, it seems, is to maintain the current regime. The inter-Korean summit provided Pyongyang de facto assurance that the South would not seek the collapse of the North. Pyongyang must be hoping that normalized ties with Japan will further assure continuance of its regime.

With regard to the U.S., however, North Korea is probably driven more by fears of what the Bush administration hopes for. Washington has denied any intention of pursuing a “regime change” in Pyongyang, as it is in Baghdad, but has accused it of producing refugees, sponsoring international terrorism and exporting weapons of mass destruction, branding it a member of an “axis of evil.”

Making North Korea a responsible member of the international community will require close cooperation among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea. Japan and South Korea need to articulate Asia’s regional interests to the U.S. and forestall any unilateral U.S. action. For that, it is also necessary to create bilateral and multilateral frameworks for security consultations, including talks between Japanese and North Korean defense officials.

As for Japanese economic aid to North Korea, a key issue in the normalization talks, Japan needs to take into account the intentions of China and Russia as well. The two nations, while welcoming an improvement in Japan-North Korea relations, are not in a position to offer substantial aid. There is also a need to convince the U.S. that financial assistance to North Korea will not lead to an arms buildup in that country, but instead lay the foundation for post-Cold War stability in Northeast Asia.

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