SEOUL — The success of Tuesday’s Japan-North Korea summit in Pyongyang shows just how much critics underestimated both Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Both demonstrated a considerable amount of diplomatic skill, and courage, during this historic one-day meeting, which appears to have accomplished Tokyo’s objective of getting the normalization process back on track.

Most pundits agreed that the meeting would be considered a failure if Koizumi did not achieve at least a partial accounting of the missing Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and ’80s. I had even suggested that the North Korean leader, in response to Koizumi’s expected apology for Japan’s colonial transgressions, might acknowledge in return that the unresolved state of hostility had resulted in occasional unfriendly acts by the North against Japan as well. But even the most optimistic could not have expected a full confession and apology from Kim Jong Il for the “regrettable” actions that had occurred against the backdrop of “decades of hostile relations.”

While attributing the kidnapping to “blind heroism” on the part of “misguided” military intelligence officials, Kim asserted that “since I came to know about this, the persons responsible have been punished,” promising that “it will never be allowed to happen again.”

This issue is far from over. Tokyo will rightfully demand more details regarding the deaths of six Japanese on its official list of suspected abductees (reportedly attributed, unconvincingly, to “natural disasters and natural causes”). Should the four surviving victims (and one descendant) choose to return to Japan, one can only imagine the horror stories they will tell. But, thanks to Kim Jong Il’s bold diplomatic stroke, this highly emotional issue will no longer prohibit forward movement in Japan-North Korea relations as it has in the past.

Koizumi’s perseverance on this issue should be applauded; other Japanese leaders allegedly were prepared to sweep it under the rug in return for forward progress. Some accused Koizumi of being prepared to go down this same path while others recommended that he should. Some even tried to make the case that the abductions never happened at all. But Koizumi hung tough and demonstrated that North Korea will respond positively when it understands that core issues are at stake — a lesson others should learn when dealing with Pyongyang.

The Bush administration — or at least those within it who see the wisdom of not opening up a third front to complicate its ongoing campaigns against international terrorism and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein — should be delighted with the outcome. Kim Jong Il’s indefinite continuation of the North’s missile test moratorium avoids a potential impending crisis in U.S.-North Korea relations, given the previous January 2003 scheduled end date.

Expressions of Pyongyang’s commitment to “abide by international agreements regarding nuclear weapons” could also indicate a willingness to begin the process of coming into full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency – a future stumbling block in the implementation of the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework – although much remains to be done here.

Those concerned that Koizumi would engage in pre-emptive checkbook diplomacy can also breathe a sigh of relief. While Japan still seems prepared to provide “grants, loans, and humanitarian assistance” in unspecified amounts (speculation runs as high as $8 billion to $10 billion) at the time of normalization — as Tokyo did when normalizing relations with Seoul in 1965 (to the tune of $500 million) — there is no evidence that he is paying in advance to move the process along.

Some critics are warning that Pyongyang may be playing its time-honored game of trying to pit Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo against one another through this latest overture. But, unlike past initiatives, Pyongyang seems prepared to move forward with all three simultaneously; its talks with Seoul continue apace and Kim Jong Il asked Koizumi to pass a message to U.S. President George W. Bush that “the door is open for dialogue” with Washington as well.

The Bush administration was right in withholding its decision on when to send its own high-level emissary (most likely Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia James Kelly) to Pyongyang until after Koizumi’s visit. But, given the progress made Tuesday, further delay is likely to be interpreted, especially in Seoul, as more evidence that Washington is determined to undermine the Peninsula peace process, official declarations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Kim Jong Il also indicated to Koizumi that the Japanese Red Army terrorists who hijacked an aircraft to North Korea in 1970 and still remain there have “expressed their intention to go home,” and that North Korea would help them do so soon. When and if this occurs, Washington should be prepared to remove North Korea from its “state sponsors of terrorism” list. Pyongyang’s continuing harboring of these aging hijackers, and the need to support Tokyo’s demand for information on the kidnap victims, have been the primary stated reasons for not removing North Korea from the list.

While much remains to be done before normalization is achieved, Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il deserve credit for taking a significant step down this road at their historic summit. All eyes are now on Washington to see if it is prepared to travel the same path.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.