[TODAY]Koizumi's turn in the spotlight

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[TODAY]Koizumi's turn in the spotlight

"He is not someone to back away because of the risks," someone said of Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the Yomiuri Shimbun. Mr. Koizumi's decision to visit North Korea has both surprised and alarmed those concerned with affairs on the Korean Peninsula. This is, indeed, a political decision that carries considerable risk. Then again, with his unique hairstyle and reportedly eccentric manners, Mr. Koizumi is probably the rare Japanese who could decide to visit North Korea so easily.

The first risk the prime minister faces is domestic. The Japanese public regards the definition of the meeting's success as progress on the issue of Japanese citizens allegedly kidnapped by Pyeongyang and now living in North Korea. Japan claims that those citizens were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s to teach North Korean agents to operate in the South disguised as Korean-Japanese. These people are still alive and living in North Korea, Japan claims. North Korea has vehemently denied such allegations.

But North Korea has eased its stance a little over the past year, telling Japan in working-level meetings that it would search for those Japanese people. That was an encouraging basis, Mr. Koizumi must have decided, for proposing a political deal with Pyeongyang on the issue. Hopefully he is right, for his own sake. Failure to bring back the Japanese citizens would mean serious trouble for the prime minister's political career.

The second risk for the prime minister is international. If Kim Jong-il grants the return of the Japanese, only to refuse any substantive talks on the issues of missiles and nuclear weapons, the Japanese prime minister would fail in his ambitious mission to help establish peace in Northeast Asia. The U.S. State Department has said it is confident that Mr. Koizumi will bring up the subjects that the United States is most concerned about in his talks with Mr. Kim. This is subtle -- but heavy -- pressure on Mr. Koizumi. Success in the issue of kidnapped persons but not in that of missiles and nuclear weapons may invite criticism that he had acted only for the interests of his own country.

Ever since the fall of the communist bloc, North Korea's survival strategy has been centered on the development of missiles and nuclear weapons. The 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework was a victory for Pyeongyang's nuclear-based brinkmanship diplomacy. The regime will never give up its nuclear weapons and missiles without a guarantee of its survival. Pyeongyang, quite accurately, believes that only the United States can give it that guarantee.

Prime Minister Koizumi should at least confirm Mr. Kim's determination to resolve the issue of missiles and weapons of mass destruction and convey it to U.S. President George W. Bush. The solution could be similar to the proposal that North Korean Marshall Jo Myong-rok made to the Clinton administration in late 2000 and that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright affirmed in Pyeongyang: the United States should compensate North Korea for giving up the weapons.

The deterministic thinking of seeing action against Iraq as a precursor of an attack on North Korea is not persuasive. There is a clear difference between North Korea and Iraq, and that difference is South Korea.

During the nuclear crisis of 1994, the Clinton administration came dangerously close to launching a missile attack on North Korea. South Korea's President Kim Young-sam's fierce protest that a U.S. attack on North Korea would be disastrous to the South as well helped stop the launch. No matter how hard-line the Bush administration is on North Korea, it would not be so rash as to attack North Korea while ignoring the opposition of the neighboring countries.

It should be said that Mr. Koizumi would be achieving a great deal indeed if he could at least start the talks with Kim Jong-il on missiles and weapons of mass destruction which would eventually have to be concluded in North Korea-U.S. negotiations. Mr. Bush probably trusts the Japanese prime minister more than South Korean President Kim Dae-jung on issues involving North Korea.

The $5 billion to $10 billion that North Korea will be asking as compensation from Japan could well determine the fate of North Korea's recent progress toward a more market-oriented economy. This does not mean that we should regard North Korea's gesture of reconciliation as a calculated move for its short-term interest. North Korea is switching to a talking mood because it has decided that it needs help in its long-term economic reforms and basic survival.

It would be foolish to worry about Japan's voice on the Korean Peninsula becoming too strong should the talks end successfully. That will only happen if we are lazy enough to sit back and let it happen. It is an encouraging change that North Korea is showing a flexible attitude in dealing with the South, Japan and the United States. Mr. Koizumi's visit would serve to give life to this change and ease Mr. Bush's hard-line policies.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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