A Time for Patient Diplomacy - Thoughts on Prime Minister Koizumi's Visit to North Korea

SOEYA Yoshihide
Faculty Fellow, RIETI

Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to North Korea has unleashed the potential for a historic shift in the international politics of North East Asia

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's recent visit to North Korea may have been the opening of Pandora's Box. While the Supreme Leader of North Korea - a country that has remained shrouded in mystery - admitted to the abduction of Japanese nationals for the purpose of Japanese language instruction and infiltrating the Republic of Korea (ROK) (including in all likelihood the objective of training terrorists posing as Japanese nationals), he continues to sidestep any personal responsibility over this matter. The North Korean leader also admitted that an unidentified ship spotted in Japanese waters was a North Korean vessel. In the medium to long term, these admissions may prove to be the first cracks in North Korea's unyielding regime.

In unleashing the potential for such a historic shift in North Korea and, by extension, the international politics of North East Asia, Prime Minister Koizumi's visit was clearly a success. Under the Japan-Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Pyongyang Declaration, the two sides "confirmed the necessity of resolving security problems including nuclear and missile issues by promoting dialogues among countries concerned." This represents a pledge to hold talks on specific issues pertaining to security with the countries concerned (pointing mainly to the United States of America and the ROK) in parallel to Japan-North Korea normalization talks. Such normalization talks, which Japan and North Korea have agreed to reopen from October, are set to have a major impact on the course of security in North East Asia.

Japan-North Korea normalization talks first began in January 1991, but were suspended following the eighth round of talks in November 1992. After a seven-and-a-half-year delay, talks reopened in April 2000 but were again suspended following the eleventh round in October 2000. Security matters including missile issues were also raised during these normalization talks. However, the background to the agreement produced by the two leaders this time is inherently different from any previous negotiations. One factor for this is the hard line policy toward North Korea held by the U.S. Bush administration, which came into office in January last year. Hence, the ability of North Korea to play diplomatic games on security issues has narrowed considerably.

Another decisive new factor is that North Korea has been forced to admit responsibility for the abduction of Japanese nationals and the unidentified ship in Japanese waters. And although it may be true that these admissions have been prompted by North Korea's economic destitution, this is not something that has only just come about. Whatever the reasons for the North Korean response, it is surely nothing less than a signal that its imperative for normalization talks with Japan to succeed is strongly felt. By admitting to actual state terrorism, the leadership of North Korea may have crossed the Rubicon. Although, of course, North Korea ultimately has the option of returning to international isolation, doing so following Mr. Koizumi's visit would be tantamount to inviting internal disintegration over the medium to long term.

The way Japan reacts from now will determine whether this historic opportunity is embraced or fails

It is now clear in retrospect that trial and error attempts by North Korea to reach out to the international community began several years ago. The country has made steady progress in its dialogue with the U.S., learning from China's reform and opening policy, normalization of relations with a series of Western nations, conciliatory policy with regard to President Kim Dae-jung of the ROK, strengthening of ties with Russia, and other such areas. The idea for a visit to North Korea by the Prime Minister of Japan was first broached during confidential contact by politicians in Singapore in January last year. It now seems that the only road left for the North Korean leadership is to succeed in its engagement policy with the rest of the world, including the normalization of relations with Japan.

The way Japan now reacts will determine whether the historic opportunity created by Prime Minister Koizumi's visit is embraced or fails. It goes without saying that Japan must demand full clarification of the facts surrounding the abduction issue during the normalization talks to come. And yet, in the long run, it would be against Japan's interests for the talks to remain at the level of suspicion or resentment toward North Korea. As the response of North Korea in this instance has demonstrated, further clarification of the facts surrounding the abduction issue should provide an important opportunity to encourage greater transparency on the part of the North Korean leadership. This process will also help to bring about step-by-step progress in transforming the international politics of the Korean Peninsula.

It is clear that the North Korean leadership does not wish for its own disintegration, just as there is little doubt that its movement to normalize relations with Japan is, in the end, aimed at securing the North Korean regime. Nevertheless, the economic assistance that comes with normalization will encourage the diversification of North Korean society, which will surely result in a body blow over the longer term. In that sense, I believe that "humanitarian assistance through international organizations" and the "provision of loans and credit by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and other sources with a view to supporting private economic activities" included in the Pyongyang Declaration in the form of measures to be implemented following the normalization of relations will have a key significance for the whole of North East Asia. The time for patient diplomacy has now arrived.

September 24, 2002

September 24, 2002

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