Don’t Rush Normalization

(Oct.1.2002)

 

Technically speaking, the recent Japan-North Korea summit meeting was a success. It achieved Japan’s original aim: of getting Pyongyang to agree to engage in “comprehensive” normalization talks.

For North Korea, normalization boils down to putting the colonial past behind it through a formal apology and compensation from Japan. From the Japanese point of view, however, normalization talks should include problems that occurred after the end of World War II, such as Pyongyang’s kid napping of Japanese citizens, missile launches, suspected development of nuclear weapons and spy-ship incursions.

In previous normalization talks, North Korean negotiators walked out when the Japanese side took up the kidnapping issue. The summit was intended primarily to convince Pyongyang that this issue should be handled as an integral part of a comprehensive agenda. In other words, the message was this: Unless the kidnapping case is settled, normalization talks will go nowhere and the North Koreans will not get any economic aid from Japan.

North Korea swallowed this condition from the beginning. There is strong popular resentment in Japan about the fact that the information Pyongyang released about the abductees was far from sufficient. However, what the two sides agreed on was to resume normalization negotiations, not to normalize relations. This means that Japan can make further demands in coming negotiations.

Relations will not be normalized unless the abduction problem is fully resolved. I am not trying to defend the Foreign Ministry’s diplomacy. It is true that the meeting developed to Japan’s advantage. But the point is that North Korea backed down unilaterally, making the question of negotiating skill largely irrelevant.

In the background, it seems, is the crisis of the North Korean economy. It also seems that the external pressure of threatened U.S. military action against Iraq played a large part. U.S. President George W. Bush’s statement denouncing North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” must have compelled Pyongyang to compromise the way it did.

It was fortunate for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as well as for the Foreign Ministry that the summit was held in these circumstances. I also believe that it was a good thing for Japan, since I have hope in the Koizumi administration and wish for its continued existence.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said at the outset of the meeting that he wanted to see the two countries become true “neighbors.” The remark may suggest he is serious about normalizing relations. However, in disclosing the fate of the abductees all at once, instead of giving such information piecemeal in the course of negotiations, Pyongyang exposed itself to Japanese outrage at the inhumanity of the kidnappings. I wonder whether this will not create discontent in the Kim regime or affect his own status.

For Japan, normalization with North Korea poses a peculiar question that no other nations share, that is, having to provide a large amount of money in order to normalize relations. Given that North Korea is militarily prepared to attack South Korea at any time, economic aid to the North has implications similar to economic aid to the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. Nevertheless, Japanese assistance will get the nod from South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s administration, but it will be called into question if a more conservative administration takes power in Seoul.

In the agreement Pyongyang promised to accept international nuclear inspections, but did not reaffirm that it will give up entirely on developing nuclear weapons. Aiding North Korea despite suspicions about its nuclear ambitions may be the same as aiding present-day Iraq.

Ideally, economic aid should be given to North Korea only after it becomes a completely peaceful nation that will not develop weapons of mass destruction and will not invade the South with conventional forces. Then and only then should Japan help the North as a truly friendly neighbor. To that end, negotiations should be conducted patiently with the focus on security issues.

No doubt North Korea’s position will be weakened if the U.S. attacks Iraq or if Iraq completely succumbs to U.S. demands. Perhaps that will become apparent in the next several months. Japan should negotiate patiently with North Korea with the aim of achieving peace while closely watching how the Iraq situation develops. Pyongyang’s inhumane acts of abduction have caused a sharp public backlash in Japan. Given such popular sentiment, it would be preferable, I believe, for the Japanese government to carry out patient negotiations with an eye to permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, instead of rushing toward an early normalization.