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North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious security threat not only to Japan but also to all of East Asia, injecting a new element of instability into the international situation following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Pyongyang admitted in talks with a visiting U.S. administration official in early October that it was continuing to develop nuclear weapons through construction of uranium enrichment facilities. This is in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea as well as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; it also contradicts the Sept. 17 Pyongyang Declaration, signed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, confirming compliance with international agreements.

Japan-North Korea talks on normalizing relations will not make progress unless the North scraps its nuclear program. Yet, following the failure of the latest round of talks in late October, Pyongyang threw up another obstacle by hinting that it might reverse its pledge to continue its moratorium on missile testing.

North Korea is notorious for brinkmanship. Its nuclear confession is likely a plot to raise its diplomatic stakes by creating a “crisis” — a calculated move to deflect U.S. President George W. Bush’s offensive against the “axis of evil,” which includes North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Pyongyang is taking a big gamble as the U.S. might take strong steps, including sanctions.

During recent visits, U.S. officials told the Japanese government that it would be difficult to maintain the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization because Pyongyang has broken the 1994 framework agreement. KEDO, of which Japan, South Korea, the U.S. and the European Union are key members, was established in 1995 to supply North Korea with light-water nuclear reactors and fuel oil in exchange for Pyongyang scrapping its nuclear program.

In early November, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg, citing a remark by North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, said the Agreed Framework is now “hanging by a thread.” Reflecting the Bush administration’s tough stance, the KEDO council on Nov. 14 decided to freeze heavy-oil supply to North Korea after December.

However, both Japan and South Korea want the U.S. to maintain KEDO as an effective means of preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. In light of these emerging differences between Japan/South Korea and the U.S., unity among the three allies is essential.

Pyongyang’s attempt to produce nuclear bombs has raised serious concerns at regional summit meetings as well. Leaders from Japan, South Korea and the U.S., meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Mexico in late October, issued a joint statement demanding that North Korea scrap its nuclear program.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin told reporters following a meeting with Bush: “The Chinese have always held the position that the Korean Peninsula should be free from nuclear weapons.” The two men, Jiang added, had “agreed that the problem should be resolved peacefully.” These expressions of cooperation must have dealt a heavy blow to Pyongyang.

The APEC summit, for its part, issued a special statement calling on North Korea to “visibly honor its commitment to give up the nuclear weapons program.”

Moreover, Japan, South Korea and China agreed at a tripartite summit in Cambodia in early November to seek a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear problem while firmly maintaining the Agreed Framework. The ASEAN plus 3 summit, including Japan, South Korea and the U.S., issued a chairman’s statement to the same effect.

Thus North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is commonly seen as a serious threat to peace in Asia. Here in Japan, however, attention has been focused on the abduction issue since normalization talks resumed following Koizumi’s surprise visit to Pyongyang in September.

Japan appears almost oblivious to the importance of conducting the reconciliation talks from the broad perspective of Asian security. Needless to say, security problems, including weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons and missiles, and the missile problem, have a close long-term bearing on peace and stability not only in Japan but also in the rest of Asia. Japan must not forget that it has a major role to play in building an Asian security framework through normalization talks with North Korea.

North Korea’s Rodong missiles can reach Japan. Katsunari Suzuki, Japan’s chief negotiator for normalization, has demanded that Pyongyang dismantle the roughly 100 Rodong missiles now deployed.

Pyongyang is said to be currently developing longer-range Taepodong missiles and to have exported Scud B and C missiles to Mideast countries.

The Pyongyang Declaration states: “(North Korea) expressed its intention that, pursuant to the spirit of the declaration, it would further maintain the moratorium on missile launching in and after 2003.” However, apparently reflecting Pyongyang’s irritation over the lack of progress in the normalization talks, a foreign ministry spokesman said in early November that North Korea’s “relevant field is of the view that (Pyongyang) should reconsider the moratorium on missile test-firing.”

Koizumi retorted that an essential prerequisite to normalization is for North Korea to faithfully carry out its promises in the Pyongyang Declaration.

U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith said in Tokyo earlier this month: It’s important that the North Koreans understand that there is a price to be paid for violating their commitments and pursuing a capability that threatens the peace and security of the region.”

In the Pyongyang Declaration, Kim made it clear that Pyongyang is committed to comply with international agreements. That commitment will be tested in future Japan-North Korea security talks. As things stand, it is unclear whether the first such meeting will be held this month.

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