HONOLULU — Japan continues to be the odd man out in Northeast Asia. While the other states in the region have been forging ties and building networks with each other — even North Korea — Japan has lagged behind. Tokyo could be marginalized in its own neighborhood. That risk has motivated Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s two foreign policy gambles of the last six months — his trips to Pyongyang and Russia. Koizumi rightfully is trying to break Japan out of its regional isolation and position the country to play a role in the future.

Northeast Asia’s geopolitical landscape began to shift in the early 1990s, when South Korea started building relations with its two communist neighbors. Seoul reached out to Beijing and Moscow as part of a broad strategy to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula by ending Pyongyang’s isolation. In theory, the establishment of relations between Seoul and its former Cold War adversaries would be matched by similar moves by Pyongyang and its enemies, the United States and Japan. At the same time, the links between Seoul and China and Russia would be used to nudge Pyongyang toward reconciliation with the South. The two Koreas’ joining the United Nations was part of this effort.

As a result, North-South relations have improved, although Pyongyang is a frustrating and unpredictable diplomatic partner. It took a nuclear crisis to get the U.S. and North Korea to reach a diplomatic “modus vivendi,” and relations had improved before deteriorated. South Korea’s ties with China continue to expand, and their economic relationship is one of the most robust in Northeast Asia. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has reinvigorated its ties with Pyongyang, as well as with Beijing and Seoul.

Only Japan has yet to benefit from this new political environment. Attempts to build stronger relations with China have been frustrated. Koizumi didn’t even go to Beijing for celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Japan-China diplomatic ties. Although Japan and South Korea successfully cohosted the World Cup and officials say official relations between the two countries are good, South Koreans tend to express more resentment than good will when asked about Japan.

Koizumi made a bold attempt to break the stalemate with North Korea with his September visit to Pyongyang, but that gambit has been defeated by intense ill will among the Japanese public — fanned by the media — surrounding the treatment of five surviving individuals abducted by North Korean agents decades ago. Any hope of normalizing relations with the North now rests on the fate of the abductees and their families. Pyongyang wants the five to return to their families while Japan demands that the families be allowed to come to Japan. In the meantime, North Korea won’t discuss security issues with Japan, and Tokyo won’t discuss economic issues — the only incentive to lure North Korea to the table.

Relations with Russia are also stuck. In this case, the chief obstacle has been the Northern Territories, four islands seized by the Soviet Union days before the end of World War II despite a nonaggression pact between Tokyo and Moscow. Incredibly, more than a half century after the end of the war, the issue has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty. A settlement appeared possible in the mid-’90s when Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto promised to sign a peace treaty by the end of 2000, but the deadline was missed.

Today, relations between the two countries are, reports one Japanese official, “the worst among G8 members.” Koizumi’s trip to Russia last week was only the second official visit by a Japanese prime minister; the first was in 1998. The list of reasons for this state of affairs is long. Both sides blame the other for the failure to strike a deal. In fact, there is no political will in either capital to compromise on the territorial issue; both governments are worried about protecting their right flanks and that means taking a hard line.

Japanese are hoping that Putin will be better positioned to make a deal if he wins re-election in 2004. The scandals that have involved the parts of the Foreign Ministry that deal with Russia have also contributed to the stalemate. No one is willing to take initiative for fear of attracting yet more scrutiny.

Any Russian readiness to compromise is diminished by the interest other nations are showing in the development of the Russian Far East, in particular its oil and gas reserves. The Siberian oil fields, thought to hold about 240 billion barrels of crude, look increasingly attractive at a time of rising instability in the Middle East. The readiness of other countries to finance the development of those supplies undercuts Japan’s bargaining position.

The irony is that Japan is the natural market for those supplies. Major Japanese markets are only about 2,000 km from the Sakhalin fields. Japan currently obtains about 88 percent of its crude oil imports from the volatile Middle East; a proposed pipeline from Russia could cut that to 65 percent.

Japan also looks to Russia for help in dealing with North Korea. During his trip to Moscow, Koizumi got little more from Putin than a call for a peaceful settlement of the nuclear crisis and a commitment to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. On the way home, Koizumi made the first ever stop in the Russian Far East by a Japanese prime minister when he laid over in Khabarovsk. There he met with Konstantin Pulikovskii, a Russian official who is close to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, to glean insights into the North Korean leader’s character. Apart from being told to treat him as an equal, Koizumi didn’t get much.

That appears to be Koizumi’s fate. His instincts are good. He understands that Japan has to play a larger role in Northeast Asian affairs, and that means breaking out of the straitjacket that hinders Japanese diplomacy and leaves it with virtually nothing to do in the region, save for shelling out money as required. (It has been generally assumed that Tokyo will pay about $10 billion in reparations to North Korea — although the payments themselves will be called something else — once relations are established.)

More than vision and bold gestures are required. There must be a foreign policy bureaucracy that can deliver on an agenda that is flexible enough to deal with contingencies. The prime minister needs courage and the political skills to push his program through the political world. The failure to deliver only diminishes the prime minister’s credibility at home and abroad. As recent months have made abundantly clear, Japan can’t afford any more handicaps in its foreign policy.

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