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Talks with North Korea are deadlocked on two make-or-break issues: that country’s nuclear weapons program and its past abduction of Japanese nationals. Last month, declaring that it has nuclear weapons, Pyongyang threatened an indefinite boycott of the six-party talks. It also refused to discuss the abductee issue, denouncing as a “fabrication” Japanese DNA tests that proved the human remains delivered by North Korea last year were not those of missing abductee Ms. Megumi Yokota.

These responses are unacceptable. Pyongyang should be put on notice, unmistakably, that it has nothing to gain from continued brinkmanship. Japan, along with the four other parties (United States, China, South Korea and Russia), has been negotiating with North Korea under a policy of “pressure and dialogue.” It’s time to shift the emphasis from carrot to stick.

On Tuesday, Japan applied the stick by putting into effect a law that holds shipowners responsible for oil spills and other maritime accidents. The law, which requires that ships of 100 tons or more carry liability insurance, effectively prohibits the entry of uninsured ships. This legislation was updated in the wake of oil spills caused by a North Korean freighter that ran aground in Hitachi port, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 2002. The shipowner failed to pay compensation.

According to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, no more than 27 percent of the foreign ships that entered Japanese ports in 2003 carried liability insurance. The figure for North Korean ships was only 2.5 percent. About 100 North Korean vessels visit Japanese ports 1,000 times a year, but as of the end of February, only 16 of them carried insurance-contract certificates issued by the ministry.

The legislative revision is not specifically targeted at North Korea. Still, the requirement for insurance liability constitutes de facto economic sanctions against that country. As things now stand, most of the ships flying the North Korean flag are expected to have difficulty entering Japanese ports.

Usually, economic sanctions cut both ways. If North Korean freighters are denied access to Japanese ports, imports of North Korean marine products, such as crabs and clams, will drop to almost zero, thus affecting Japanese traders and consumers. That may not happen, though, if North Korea uses Chinese and Russian ships. Such “detour” trade would sap the efficacy of the sanctions. The law should be strictly implemented to demonstrate the will of the Japanese government and people.

This is not the first time that Japan has taken action against North Korea. Last year, to restrict the flow of goods and funds between the two countries, the Foreign Exchange Law was amended. In addition, new legislation was enacted to prohibit the entry of “selected” (North Korean) ships. A study by the Liberal Democratic Party shows that North Korea’s gross domestic product would drop by a maximum 7 percent if all imports from the country were halted. So far, such outright sanctions have not been carried out.

The liability insurance law represents an indirect way of applying pressure to the North Koreans. The stick can be used in other ways short of direct sanctions, such as by restricting cash flows indirectly. In fiscal 2003, a total of 2.7 billion yen — down 34.5 percent from the year before — was transferred from Japan to North Korea through regular routes, according to the Finance Ministry. This was down 34.5 percent from the year before mainly because baggage checks had been tightened for passengers of North Korean ships, including the Man Gyong Bong-2 ferry, which plies between Niigata and Wonsan.

Travelers to the North who carry 1 million yen or more in cash must declare these amounts at customs, while bank remittances exceeding 30 million yen must be reported to the Bank of Japan. Cash flows will further diminish if these limits are lowered.

Recently the government itself has come under pressure from various quarters, including the Diet, to take strong action against the North. In December, an ad hoc Diet committee on the abductee issue adopted a resolution calling for sanctions. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, however, continues to take a cautious stand. He should make clear to Pyongyang that he will order sanctions if no further progress is made on this issue.

North Korea should also return to the six-party talks as soon as possible and unconditionally. In this regard, China, the chair of the forum, can be expected to use its influence with Pyongyang. Bilateral talks between the U.S and North Korea can be held on the sidelines of multilateral meetings. However, North Korea should not be rewarded for just returning to the table. If it does not change its reckless ways, other parties should refer it to the U.N. Security Council — a move that most likely will lead to international sanctions.

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