[VIEWPOINT]Koizumi bid in chain of failures

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[VIEWPOINT]Koizumi bid in chain of failures

Diplomatic and media channels have been abuzz this past week with speculation about the meeting Japan's prime minister, Koizumi Junichiro, is scheduled to hold with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, in Pyeongyang today.

Optimists familiar with the painstakingly cautious nature of Japanese diplomacy express confidence on the summit because Tokyo would not have agreed to the meeting, they argue, without a satisfactory outcome scripted well in advance. Pessimists, on the other hand, are concerned whether an overzealous Koizumi will fall into the same trap that befell Kim Dae-jung in June 2000, returning from Pyeongyang with smiles and symbolic gestures, but no substantive North Korean concessions toward tension-reduction on the peninsula.

This combination of anticipation and trepidation is nothing new in Japanese high-level initiatives toward North Korea. Contacts by the Liberal Democratic Party with the North in 1972 under the Tanaka Kakuei government, similar efforts between emissaries of Nakasone Yasuhiro and the North Korean foreign minister, Ho Dam, in the mid-1980s, and Kanemaru Shin's meetings with Kim Il-sung in 1990 were attempts at breakthroughs that failed.

It is critical that Mr. Koizumi's trip goes well, not just to reverse this trend of history, but also because the trip's timing is more important than any other of these past diplomatic efforts. Mr. Koizumi's visit comes amid a last-gasp attempt by South Korea to boost the sunshine policy before the December presidential elections.

Moreover, Mr. Koizumi meets with the North Korean leader amid growing skepticism in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush about pursuing engagement with the North. Despite recent improvements in North-South relations and positive statements by U.S. officials about the imminent dispatch of Assistant Secretary James Kelly to Pyeongyang, the international debate on attacking Iraq in the past week and the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States unwittingly have contributed to a "circle the wagons" mentality among Bush hawks against engagement with any "axis of evil" regime.

Kim Jong-il will reportedly ask Mr. Koizumi to act as a "bridge" for engagement between the U.S. and North Korea. But what exactly does this mean? Moreover, given the current climate in Washington, what is Mr. Koizumi's threshold for a "successful" meeting?

If the Japanese leader obtains a promise from Mr. Kim to resolve the cases of Japanese nationals allegedly abducted to North Korea in return for Tokyo's relaxation of limits on financial remittances by pro-North groups in Japan, this might be welcomed in Seoul, but would fall short of U.S. expectations.

The ideal would be if Mr. Koizumi could persuade Kim Jong-il to extend the missile testing moratorium (due to expire in 2003), accelerate implementation of the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework (e.g., by accepting Japanese help in facilitating early international inspections of disputed nuclear waste sites), or present some confidence-building measures with regard to the North's missile deployment.

The last of these is highly unlikely given that Pyeongyang would not even discuss the issue with the United States during negotiations at the end of 2000. The former two options, however, are within the realm of possibility. A North Korean concession on missile tests or nuclear inspections would provide a major boost to sunshine policy advocates in Seoul even though it might still be greeted with skepticism by Bush hawks.

What then would satisfy the hawks? Frankly, nothing short of an unconventional surrender by the North. The hope for Mr. Koizumi's visit, however, rests not on converting the hardliners of engagement's merits, but on building a regional consensus for engagement that takes the wind out of hawk arguments for other options. Mr. Koizumi understands this calculation. One only hopes that Kim Jong-Il does as well.


The writer is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University. chav@georgetown.edu

by Victor D. Cha

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