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MONTEREY, Calif. — The Japan Times on March 1 reported that Tokyo is reviewing its participation in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO, program. If the Japanese government is giving serious thought to withdrawing from the program, it will not only exacerbate an already serious situation but also jeopardize a longer-term prospect of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

On the contrary, Japan should turn the current nuclear crisis in North Korea into an opportunity for forging comprehensive peace in Northeast Asia. The first step toward the latter is to take all measures to end North Korea’s international isolation.

Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, a similar crisis is bound to return if the North is not brought out of its isolation. This means that any solution to be sought for the current crisis must be compatible with and linked to broader efforts at re-engaging North Korea with the world.

Economic sanctions that the United States is advocating are unacceptable. Washington’s refusal to talk to Pyongyang unless the latter scraps its nuclear weapons program is equally untenable. It is also counterproductive for Japan to demand that North Korea give a full account of its abduction of Japanese citizens before resuming normalization talks. These demands should be pressed while engaging Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s summit diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese leader Jiang Zeming, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi clearly demonstrates that the North Korean leader is the only person in the country who can change its policy.

Engagement at the highest level may be a high political risk for U.S. President George W. Bush, but further escalation of the nuclear crisis is an incomparable risk that must be avoided. Washington must be prepared to drive a hard bargain with Pyongyang.

What are the elements of such a bargain that would help defuse the present tension and pave the way toward a broader peace in the region?

* U.S. assurances, by formal agreement or unilateral declaration, of nonaggression toward North Korea in exchange for immediate, verifiable suspension of nuclear weapons development in North Korea;

* economic assistance coordinated among the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to open select areas for international investment, trade, and tourism;

* synchronized mutual restructuring and reduction of forces in North and South Korea now targeted against each other;

* resumption of the four-party talks to turn the armistice agreement into a more permanent peace treaty, linked to the expansion of the four-country framework to include Japan and Russia;

* agreement among the six countries to ensure a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, including verification in both North and South;

* agreement among the six countries on noninterference in the internal affairs of North and South Korea, including eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South; and,

* agreement between North Korea and each neighboring country to normalize bilateral relations by removing outstanding issues in those relations.

These are all bold and difficult steps to take as they represent substantial political risks on all sides. It is clear, however, that a piecemeal approach — addressing each of the above issues separately — will only assure its failure as the issues are all closely linked in one fundamental point: Currently there is no trust between the countries concerned, and a bilateral movement on any one of these issues is bound to raise suspicion in the other countries.

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