[GLOBAL EYE]Japan takes diplomatic initiative

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[GLOBAL EYE]Japan takes diplomatic initiative

Japan is changing the way it conducts diplomacy. After hiding under the security umbrella provided by the United States since its defeat in World War II, it is now taking diplomatic initiative.

Japan has been criticized for being too timid, even by the United States, which shackled Tokyo's security discussions. Now, Japan is trying to change its diplomatic front under the leadership of a unique prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. A good example is last week's breakthrough summit meeting between Mr. Koizumi and North Korea's strongman, Kim Jong-il.

The process through which the summit talks were agreed was quite different from the way that Japan's Foreign Ministry typically conducts its business.

The generally accepted view among experts is that the summit was accomplished through the leadership of Hitoshi Tanaka, the head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau. Mr. Tanaka bypassed his boss, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, and reported to Mr. Koizumi through Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda. Such an aberrance suggests that Tokyo's political determination has been reflected in its diplomacy with Pyeongyang.

Some observers say that Mr. Koizumi's calculations for domestic politics were a key factor in the summit meeting. But I think that Japan's diplomacy deserves credit for its deviation from the norm and its swiftness to recognize the political circumstances.

What attracts our attention even more is that Tokyo went ahead with the summit despite its anticipation of protests from Washington. Japan did not inform the United States of the meeting until the last minute.

It was a diplomatic choice, with Japan taking advantage of loopholes in U.S. diplomacy, as the U.S. focuses on its preparations for a war against Iraq. At the same time, Japan has demonstrated its diplomatic skills to the Bush administration, which is taking a hard-line policy toward Pyeongyang.

In reality, Japan's diplomatic experts, whether leftists or rightists, are nearly of one mind in emphasizing the importance of a U.S.-Japan alliance. What drove Japan to take such a risky diplomatic gamble could be Tokyo's efforts to be more independent in its diplomacy as well as support from intellectuals, who urged the government to improve ties with its neighbors in Asia.

Many Japanese intellectuals have long argued that while Tokyo should consider the U.S.-Japan security alliance as an asset for Japan's national security, it should also capitalize on political circumstances to make more independent choices. In addition, Japan's latest diplomatic foray was largely possible because of Washington's unilateralism that had lost international support.

Although Japan approached North Korea without prior coordination with the United States, the Bush administration cannot oppose it.

I think that it was an effort that could instill pride in Japan's diplomacy, following an inability to challenge Washington for half a century. At a time when the United States' allies in Europe are balking at a war against Iraq, Washington cannot afford a diplomatic quarrel with Tokyo, which the U.S. needs so badly on its side.

Of course, how Japan-North Korean relations fare depends on Pyeongyang's attitude during negotiations for establishing diplomatic ties between the two and the situations that follow a resumption of talks between the North and the United States.

But Japan's diplomatic ability to lead the latest Tokyo-Pyeongyang summit meeting requires Seoul to pay more attention to Japan.

Japan voiced its opinion about issues involving the Korean Peninsula only as a member of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization and the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group, a policy coordination panel involving Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.

Japan has now become an important presence by establishing a bilateral relationship with the North.

The diplomatic rhetoric that improved ties between Japan and the North will contribute to stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula, and can no longer be considered mere rhetoric as Seoul keeps close eyes on Japan.


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kil Jeong-woo

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