[VIEWPOINT]Last chance for Kim Jong-il?Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyeongyang on Sept. 17. The Japanese prime minister's visit to Pyeongyang could be a step forward in North Korean-Japanese relations and in establishing peace and security in the region, or it could end up nothing more than a dream. The world, South Korea in particular, will be paying close attention to the outcome of Mr. Koizumi's visit.
The basic plot of the North Korea-Japan meeting will be contention between Pyeong-yang's demand that Japan settle the past before the two countries establish diplomatic ties and Tokyo's insistence on focusing on present issues, including humanitarian issues.
Pyeongyang may be wavering, though; the July 31 joint statement of the foreign ministers of the two countries announced that humanitarian concerns, including the fate of allegedly kidnapped Japanese living in the North, will be "given utmost care and solved in the shortest time possible."
Another joint statement on Aug. 26 declared that the two sides would explore whether it would be possible to resolve the pending issues in the context of establishing diplomatic relations. The key to this possibility is easing the tension between the political positions of Japan, the United States and both Koreas.
North Korea is currently undergoing the most difficult times it has ever faced since the end of the Korean War. One of the biggest tasks that Pyeongyang faces now is to follow through with the economic reforms that started on July 1.
Another task is to come up with an effective reaction to the United States' war against weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
In order for the economic reform measures of the North to escape the shortage of supplies and the inflation that befell the Soviet Union and Eastern European governments in their final days, the North Korean economy needs cooperation from the international economic community.
Pyeongyang also needs to find a way out of the ranks of "axis of evil" countries where U.S. President George Bush has placed it, so that an international consensus that Mr. Bush is right can be avoided.
That is why the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il needs to keep the bigger picture in mind when dealing with the issue of Japanese citizens who were kidnapped to North Korea. In the meantime, he can try to achieve two very difficult tasks: strengthening North Korea's economy and enhancing its political status in the international community.
The Koizumi cabinet, which is seeing its own share of political and economic problems, may be interested in an early establishment of diplomatic ties with North Korea after the summit meeting; the North, with its severe problems, is showing signs of interest in resolving the issue of kidnapped Japanese in North Korea.
Japan's first priority in the leadership meeting will be to secure assurances from Pyeong-yang that the fate of the Japanese citizens living in North Korea will be decided under humanitarian principles. Its second concern will be the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles and their effect on the peace and security of the region. Tokyo is showing at least a minimum of sincerity toward North Korea's demands to settle the past.
There is a danger of a Japanese domestic backlash. Critics say too much is being given for too little in return, and insist that terror and mass weapons be the major emphasis in dealing with the North. Japan could be isolated if the next administration in Seoul takes a harder-line stance.
The United States has categorized North Korea as a central member of the "axis of evil" and considers nuclear inspections and North Korea's missile program as national security issues. It will push the Japanese to negotiate from the same assumptions.
Seoul hopes the North Korea-Japan summit will contribute to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula. From the South's perspective, the summit should extend beyond humanitarian and historical issues and ensure that the North does not hinder regional peace and security and continues its economic reforms.
The success of the North-Japanese summit meeting will depend on how well the political tension among Japan, the United States and both Koreas can be controlled. North Korea must show willingness to become a member of an "axis of peace" and seek international help to make its economic reform a success.
Japan, the United States and South Korea should fully support the North if it demonstrates that it is serious about those tasks. This could be the last chance for Kim Jong-il.
The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.
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