[TODAY]Japan should take the long view

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[TODAY]Japan should take the long view

During Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to North Korea in September 2002, the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, made the following statement to him concerning his regime’s abductions of Japanese citizens: “In my opinion, rash people from some special agency committed these acts from the 1970s to the early 1980s, trying to be heroes. On this occasion, I’d like to express my frank apology for these regrettable incidents.”
This was a bold and amazing apology. It must not have been easy, from a son’s point of view, for Mr. Kim to so frankly admit that a national crime was committed during the reign of his father, Kim Il Sung.
Chairman Kim’s bold approach and Mr. Koizumi’s unusual diplomatic style appeared to finally spark an improvement in relations between North Korea and Japan, one that could even lead to the normalization of diplomatic relations. It was also expected that the improvement of bilateral ties between the two countries would add decisive momentum to the resolution of problems in North Korea.
But as the saying goes, clouds always follow sunshine. A month later, the United States thrust before North Korea what it called evidence that the North had a program to develop nuclear weapons with the use of highly enriched uranium, causing the second North Korean nuclear crisis and putting a damper on the reconciliatory mood between North Korea and Japan.
It was suspected that the United States, to check the seemingly rapid improvements in relations between South and North Korea and between North Korea and Japan, had chosen this time to disclose evidence that it had possessed for a long time. At this same time, both the Gaeseong Industrial Complex project and the building of roads and rail connections between the two Koreas had also begun to progress on a full scale.
Relations between North Korea and Japan improved to the point that after the second summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Koizumi, Japanese abductees went home with Mr. Koizumi, followed later by members of their families. But the relationship that had made such progress stepped on a lethal mine: The remains of some deceased abductees that North Korea had sent to Japan turned out to be false. It was reasonable for Japan to react with turmoil and resentment.
This was a pitiable incident. If the relationship between North Korea and Japan had developed to the point where diplomatic ties were normalized, and if the North had received $10 billion or so from Japan to put their economic relationship on the right track, it could have been a turning point for the opening of North Korean society and the globalization of its economy. But Japan is headed in the opposite direction. The government is reviewing the possibility of economic sanctions, and the legislature is about to draw up a bill addressing human rights in the North. Furthermore, the legislature is ready to cooperate with the United States on the issue of North Korean human rights.
Japan, calm down! Be prudent! Isn’t it possible that the false remains of Japanese abductees were sent by people who were ignorant of genetic testing ― and that, above all, Mr. Kim might not have known about it?
If, pushed by public opinion, the Japanese government imposes economic sanctions on North Korea, and the legislature passes a North Korean human rights bill, the prospects of resuming the six-nation talks over the nuclear standoff will be murky ―to say nothing of the likelihood of the talks producing any results.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage has advised that Japan’s political circles, and its conservative press, exercise prudence when contemplating sanctions against North Korea. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has advised Japan not to risk the six-way talks on other issues when the resolution of the North’s nuclear problem is so urgent. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon recommends that Japan solve its problems with the North through dialogue rather than through sanctions and blockades. Japan should not ignore such advice.
In particular, the passage of a North Korean human rights bill in Japan could wreck not just North Korea-Japan relations, but the composition of the six-party talks, worsening the situation for all of Northeast Asia.
What are human rights? Viewed rather grandly, they mean the right of human beings to live like human beings. But realistically, they begin with such rights as the right to get treatment when one falls ill and the right to eat as much as one needs. Will the human rights of North Koreans be better protected if Japan pressures their government with the passage of a bill, joining the United States, which has already done so? No ― North Koreans’ lives will become more difficult. And Pyeongyang’s hard-liners will be in higher spirits.
Human rights conditions in the North should be improved gradually, on a long-term basis, within a framework encompassing all of North Korea’s problems, including the nuclear issue. Japan should not forget the paradox that the more it presses North Korea to improve its human rights conditions, the more jeopardized North Koreans’ right to survive ― the primal right ― will be.
According to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the Japanese public thinks Mr. Koizumi should be prudent in imposing economic sanctions on North Korea, but it also thinks such sanctions should be imposed. This reflects Japan’s dilemma when it comes to North Korea. I hope Japan will see the abduction issue from the wider perspective of peace in Northeast Asia.

* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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