Tokyo blows a chance at leadership

LETTER FROM ASIA
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
November 23, 2007
SHANGHAI: The dawning of a new Asia seemed just possible in September 2002, as the prime minister of Japan then, Junichiro Koizumi, met in Pyongyang with the leader of North Korea and exchanged apologies.
Japan and North Korea had never had diplomatic relations, never mind an exchange of visits between leaders, and Koizumi had come to try to bring to a close the most difficult issue that still separated the two countries: the kidnapping by North Korean intelligence agents of 11 Japanese nationals who disappeared decades earlier into the Stalinist kingdom.
A delicate minuet was required of both sides involving statements of regret and future promises. Koizumi said that Japan “humbly recognized the historical fact that it caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of Korea through its past colonial rule and expressed feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology.”
There was more. “Progress in Japan-North Korean ties does not just benefit the two countries,” Koizumi said. “It affects peace on the Korean Peninsula and all of northeastern Asia. It also contributes greatly to the peace and stability of South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, other neighboring nations and the international community as a whole.”
Kim Jong Il, the dictator who is incessantly lampooned for his bouffant hairdo and elevator shoes, among other eccentricities, sounded just the right notes on the kidnappings. “This is truly regretful, and I offer my candid apology,” a Japanese official quoted him as saying, adding, “This will never happen again.”
Kim was not finished, either. Nine months after being named as a charter member of the Axis of Evil by President George W. Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address, he asked Koizumi to convey to the Bush administration that the “door is open for dialogue” and said he would observe an open-ended moratorium on testing ballistic weapons.
But Japan and North Korea failed to consolidate what certainly appeared to be a monumental breakthrough. Suffice to say that there was plenty blame to go around.
By now, painting North Korea as villainous does not even count as sport. The dynastic Kim regime has a tremendous amount to answer for, from the death of untold hundreds of thousands of its citizens from famine, to the stunted lives of countless others, to the fierce repression that is a rule of daily life.
In its diplomacy with Japan, however, North Korea was trying to break out of the economic and political deep freeze it found itself in and had signaled a willingness to make concessions on important issues in order to do so – and not for the first time, either.
The Bush administration was deeply disappointed with Japan’s North Korean diplomacy, which had been played much closer than usual to the chest by an ally that usually walks in lock step with the United States. And Washington quickly began to ratchet up the pressure on Tokyo to avoid coming to terms with Pyongyang in any way that would involve large economic aid, which unsurprisingly was what the North Koreans craved most.
It was not American pressure alone that made this promising diplomatic opening suddenly slam closed. Japanese politicians led by Koizumi’s hapless successor, Shinzo Abe, who was then a top aide to the prime minister, whipped up public sentiment on the kidnapping issue to the point where the fate of the disappeared people became a national obsession.
Japan escalated its demands on the issue as public opinion grew almost hysterical, and soon Tokyo and Pyongyang were back to their traditional stance, at loggerheads, treating each other to disdain and insults.
The birth of a new Asia has gotten well under way since then, but Japan, which once might have been the midwife, has been mostly absent from the proceedings. Even the United States has begun to come around on North Korea, raising the prospect of an end to the official state of war that still exists on the peninsula it shares with South Korea, and nuclear disarmament, which is a precondition for full normalization.
Japan, meanwhile, remains dug in to its position that without a complete resolution of the kidnapping matter there can be no normalization with North Korea. A Japanese diplomat told me in Beijing not long ago that there was “no possibility” of Japanese financing for the energy assistance that North Korea has demanded in exchange for its nuclear cooperation until it was satisfied on the kidnapping front.
Already, the Bush administration has been preparing its Japanese ally for the moment, ostensibly soon, when Washington will reach its own accommodation with Pyongyang. That would begin with removing it, for example, from the list of countries the United States designates as state sponsors of terrorism, a vital step toward ending the country’s deep isolation.
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