The Koizumi-Roh Summit and North Korea

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

Within the past few weeks, President Bush has had summit meetings with South Korea's new President Roh Moo-Hyun and Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi to try to line up Japanese and South Korean support behind a coordinated policy to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons development program. The next important step in this process is the meeting next week between Koizumi and Roh in Tokyo.

While the US, Japan, and South Korea have said that they are united in face of the North Korean nuclear threat, it is not at all clear what their policy and strategy are. They sent a strong message to North Korea that they would not tolerate North Korea becoming a nuclear weapons state and promised "additional measures" in the language of the Bush-Roh joint communique, and "tougher action" in the harsher language of the Bush-Koizumi joint communique. And they also agreed that they would seek a "peaceful resolution" of the nuclear issue.

However, seeking a peaceful resolution is the expression of a desire; it is not a policy. Only when it becomes clear what the specific strategy is that is being adopted to bring about a peaceful resolution can there be said to be a policy, and on this point of strategy there is uncertainty about where the US, Japan, and South Korea each stand.

The Bush Administration remains caught in a battle between moderates and hard liners, between those who think a peaceful resolution means ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea short of the use of military force and not talking about anything else until the weapons issue is resolved, and those who favor a more comprehensive approach, a kind of road map to peace, that would include both sanctions and positive incentives to encourage North Korea to give up its nuclear option. Until this fundamental issue is decided, "peaceful resolution" amounts to little more than a slogan.

As far as the Roh government is concerned, it seems that not only North Korea policy but domestic policies as well are in flux. That is the major impression I got from talking with people in and out of the government in Seoul this past week. Since President Roh has been in office for only three months, it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions about where his government is going, but I tend to share the view of South Koreans who see Roh as a pragmatic and new type of leader in South Korea who is ready to shift his policies as required, whether or not it contradicts the promises he made in his election campaign.

The Roh government is currently struggling to define a new policy toward North Korea to replace the sunshine policy of his Roh's predecessor Kim Dae Jung. The comment made to me by one highly placed source that the South Korean government has decided to stop playing Santa Claus to the North and now will insist on greater reciprocity is an indication that the government is looking for a notably different approach to the North than its predecessor. The problem is that this government, so keenly aware of the importance of alliance with the US, is so worried about being criticized by Washington that it is refraining from publicly expressing its views on how to deal with the North.

In the meantime in Japan, worries about the North Korean nuclear threat, anger over the abductee issue, and the importance Koizumi attaches to maintaining his close personal relationship with George Bush have combined to move the Japanese government toward an ever more hawkish position. At the least, there is no evidence that Prime Minister Koizumi has said anything to try to counter the policy line advocated by US hard liners. If the Koizumi government has its own distinct position on how to deal with North Korea, it has done a good job of hiding it.

No one knows whether the peaceful resolution of North Korea's nuclear weapons program is possible. But unless the US engages North Korea more directly, laying out a road map that indicates not only the sanctions North Korea will suffer if it does not comply but the gains it would get from giving up its nuclear program, we will never know whether a peaceful resolution is possible. That is the message President Roh should bring to Japan this week, and that is the message that these two US allies together should convey to the Bush Administration.

>> Original text in Japanese

* The article was reprinted from 'Jidai wo yomu' of Tokyo Shimbun on June 1, 2003.

June 1, 2003 Tokyo Shimbun

June 6, 2003

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