Japan-N. Korea Ties Likely to Mend Last

Japan-N. Korea ties likely to mend last


Since June’s summit meeting between North and South Korea, diplomatic activities surrounding Pyongyang have heated up. Is this the real thing? And if it is, how it will end up? Several years ago, there was also a period of an improvement in North-South relations after the Cold War ended. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the two Koreas held intergovernmental talks. The following year, Seoul normalized diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. In 1991, the two Koreas simultaneously joined the United Nations, and in 1992 they declared their intention to make the Korean Peninsula a nuclear weapons-free zone.

However, in retrospect it seems that Pyongyang’s overtures were the result of a fear of being isolated in the new post-Cold War world. The Soviet Union started negotiating to normalize relations with Seoul, with China set to follow suit, while Pyongyang’s relations with Japan and the United States had not improved at all.

Therefore, basic tensions between the North and South were not eased at all. The declaration of a nuclear weapons-free peninsula, especially, seemed to be a rash move for North Korea. And, sure enough, the next year it announced it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Relations between Pyongyang and Washington soured over an inspection of plutonium fuel rods, and by the spring of 1994, tensions between the two had reached a critical level.

But the current political developments are somewhat different from those of the past. The circumstances surrounding them, and the way Seoul and Pyongyang are acting, are quite different. As a result of talks between the United States and North Korea in 1994, Tokyo, Washington and Seoul agreed to offer light water nuclear reactors to Pyongyang to replace its graphite reactors. In return, the North promised to stop developing nuclear weapons, allaying fears of a worst-case scenario developing. Since then, construction of the light water reactors has progressed–although there have been various difficulties. This aid program has created, to a certain extent, mutual trust–or at least a sense of being accustomed to having contact with each other–among working-level officials.


Perry’s success

Though suspicion over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development resurfaced in 1998, and the launch of a Taepodong missile raised tensions anew, subsequent negotiations led by former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry with Pyongyang were a shining diplomatic success.

North Korea agreed to an inspection of facilities suspected of being used to develop nuclear weapons and also promised to refrain from further missile launches as long as diplomatic negotiations continued. Ironically, this has meant the United States has had to maintain a positive attitude in talks with Pyongyang to prevent it from launching further missiles.

The United States’ long-term policy since talks started with Pyongyang in 1994 has been to seek a “soft landing” concerning North Korean issues. Although this policy has not been officially defined, it is understood that the United States does not want any sudden changes on the Korean Peninsula, such as a collapse of the Pyongyang administration–or God forbid–a war. As a logical result, the United States hopes that the status quo will be maintained. In other words, it will settle for peaceful coexistence with North Korea provided a certain level of agreement can be reached over nuclear and missile issues.

The administration of South Korean President Kim DaeJung, who came to power in 1998, also has been advocating peaceful coexistence. Russia openly supports the policy, and it is presumed that China wants the status quo to be maintained in the two Koreas. This means that all of the countries most concerned over matters on the Korean Peninsula want to see peaceful coexistence at least for the time being–though, in principle, they have not given up on the idea of a reunification of the two Koreas. Pyongyang can rest assured in the knowledge that its neighbors wish to see it continue as an independent entity.

On our side, President Kim Dae Jung’s statesmanlike initiative and Perry’s diplomacy have created a framework of tripartite coordination and cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea. All three countries have gained confidence in their ties of friendship and have become able to negotiate with North Korea based on mutual trust.


North isolated

What changes have occurred in North Korea? Although it is very difficult to know exactly what is happening there from the outside, we can speculate by analyzing objective circumstances and events. Economically speaking, the six years since 1994 have been significant. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 had a serious impact on countries that belonged to the Soviet economic bloc. The gross domestic product of former socialist countries in Eastern Europe plummeted from 1989 until 1994, when they finally recovered. India and Vietnam, which had growth potential as developing countries, also ended up with zero growth following the collapse, and their economies bottomed out sometime around 1994.

During the five-year postcollapse period, countries in the former Soviet economic bloc invited the input of capital and technology from Japan, Germany and the United States, changing their economic structures so that they would be able to survive in the international free-market economy.

North Korea alone has been left on the sidelines. According to outside estimate, its GDP has continued to decline since 1994–the turnaround date for its fellow former Soviet bloc dependents. It is obvious that North Korea’s economy will come to a standstill sooner or later unless Pyongyang accepts capital and technology from Japan, South Korea and the United States. Given this situation, Pyongyang has to seriously consider President Kim’s offer of economic aid, which includes funds for helping the North rebuild its infrastructure.

Another indication of change in North Korea was seen in the actions of Kim Jong Il. During the South-North summit and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Pyongyang, Kim openly had contact with foreign guests, held long talks, accepted the initiatives of foreign leaders and promoted his own. It was a drastic change from the past, when Pyongyang replied to overtures from the outside world with total silence.

Although we could make various guesses by attributing this change to political, psychological or health factors, common sense tells us that Kim has deepened his confidence politically and psychologically in the six years following the death of the “great founder” of the nation, Kim Il Sung, and as a result his power base has solidified.

Thus, we are in a situation in which we can expect to promote mutual understanding and progress over issues concerning North Korea through summit talks with Pyongyang.


Abductions unresolved

Now that circumstances have changed so drastically, diplomatic relations surrounding North Korea will see progress. However, Japan-North Korea relations are expected to lag behind those of other countries.

One of the reasons for this is the national sentiment of the Japanese people. Diplomatic overtures toward North Korea started after a missile agreement was reached between the United States and North Korea last year. The Japanese people felt strong antipathy toward North Korea following the launch of a Taepodong missile in August 1998, because it occurred at a time when national sentiment already had grown hostile toward Pyongyang following a police report in 1997 on alleged abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.

Therefore, while the United States could resume normalization talks with Pyongyang because an agreement had been reached on the suspension of Taepodong missile launches in 1999, public opinion did not allow the Japanese government to do the same.

Though the alleged abductions occurred decades ago, the memory remains fresh in the minds of Japanese because they were only publically revealed in 1997. In particular, the suspected abduction of Megumi Yokota–a schoolgirl–could not be explained by any political motive. This kidnapping must continue to tormente her and has profoundly pained her parents. Given this national sentiment, it is unlikely that the abduction issue will be dropped from the agenda of any future Japan-North Korea talks.

From the opposite viewpoint, if North Korea were to admit to the abductions, repatriate the abductees and punish those responsible for the kidnappings, there might well be a mood change in Japan that would support the normalization of relations with North Korea–in spite of concerns regarding regional security in the Far East and fears of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In that sense, North Korea holds a trump card.

There is another strategic and diplomatic obstacle in the way of the normalization of relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang–one that does not hamper other nations’ normalizing their diplomatic ties with the North. That is the issue of compensation.

According to unofficial estimates, the 500 million dollars that Japan gave South Korea when diplomatic ties were normalized is now worth 10 billion dollars. And compensation to North Korea would be nearly 1 trillion yen even after taking into consideration the difference in the populations of the two countries.

Observing the current situation in the Far East, the possibility of a war on the Korean Peninsula has become very remote, but has not been totally eliminated. Should a war occur, the life of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans–our friendly neighbors–and tens of thousands of U.S. troops–our allies–would be sacrificed. In addition, North Korea is currently viewed by the United States as very likely responsible for developing and exporting weapons of mass destruction.

Given this, should Japan offer a huge sum of money to North Korea? Is it not similar to providing economic aid to the Soviet Union when Hokkaido was under threat of invasion during the Cold War?

After consideration, it should be apparent that a prerequisite for Japan giving funds to North Korea is the certainty that war would be an impossibility on the Korean Peninsula.

Is it not advisable, as a policy proposal, for Japan to make it a condition that progress be made in confidence-building measures–as was seen in Europe during and toward the end of the Cold War–before diplomatic ties be normalized?


Transparency vital

Europe has a long history of such confidence-building steps, although not all were implemented. Measures proposed in Europe varied widely, such as those to increase transparency by setting up hot lines, giving prior notification of military exercises, mutual exchanges of observers to military exercises, and disarmament measures effected by separating conflicting forces and mutually reducing the level of forces.

As a matter that directly affects Japan, it is desirable that transparency be secured over not only Taepodong missiles, but also the deployment and test-firing of Rodong missiles, which can reach more than half of the Japanese archipelago.

These prerequisites should not be called conditions. Rather they are considerations to be given as a matter of course. It is Japan’s due obligation to expect that kind of security not only for itself, but also for our friends and allied nations.

Of course, this policy first needs to be thoroughly coordinated with the United States and South Korea. Currently, neither the United States nor South Korea is urging Japan to be circumspect about those points. They support our efforts to improve relations with Pyongyang in general. But no one knows how long this attitude will last. Both the administrations of U.S. President Bill Clinton and President Kim belong to a softer group in the policy spectrums of each nation.

There are also those in the United States and South Korea who oppose these policies. In addition, though the United States and South Korea have voiced their support for Japan’s stance, it is highly probably that they will criticize Japan if it adopts policies toward Pyongyang that are softer than their own.

After all, nobody is opposed to the view that the goal of international politics in the Far East is the easing of tensions between the two Koreas and an increased confidence between them, which will be simultaneously accompanied by Japanese economic assistance to North Korea. If that view is taken, it is highly likely that the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and North Korea will come after those of the United States and South Korea.

In the event of a military emergency on the Korean Peninsula, the obligations and risks that Seoul and Washington would bear concerning the lives of South Koreans and U.S. soldiers are immeasurably larger than those Japan would have.

Therefore, it is prudent for Japan to respect the intentions of friendly nations–which have a larger stake in the game–and follow their paths, while trying not to stand in the way of their policies. If Japan goes too far, for domestic reasons, as it did in the early 1990s, criticism will be unavoidable sooner or later.

No other country in the world needs to pay more careful consideration to normalizing ties with North Korea than Japan does. Which is probably why Japan will lag behind the rest of the world in doing so.

And that choice is right. The biggest prize North Korea can gain from normalizing diplomatic ties with the world is economic aid from Japan. Negotiations over the issue naturally should be the grand finale of diplomatic activities involving North Korea.

Thus, it follows that Japan will be the last nation to develop diplomatic ties with North Korea, and we should not be misguided by the irresponsible opinion that holds that Japan will be the only country that has missed the bus.