Wake-up call from TokyoThe breakthrough in talks between North Korea and Japan to end their decades-old dispute over kidnapped Japanese in return for eased sanctions has touched a sensitive nerve. Tokyo was out of step at a time when Seoul, Washington and Beijing were in the process of forming a united front to pressure Pyongyang over its renewed sable rattling about a fourth nuclear test. It dealt a surprise blow to Seoul, which has been seeking ways to improve the low-key inter-Korean relationship within the framework of the common stance against Pyongyang’s nuclear program that it shares with the United States and Japan. Washington also cannot hide its embarrassment by its Asian ally’s sudden move. Seoul and Washington’s response that the deal between Tokyo and Pyongyang was a humanitarian issue does not mean they are pleased. The traditional security alliance among South Korea, the United States and Japan could be put to a test despite all the intermediary efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama in The Hague in March and during visits to the two countries in April.
Tokyo and Pyongyang are suddenly cozying up for mutually self-serving purposes. North Korea is in dire economic straits due to multiple sanctions by the UN Security Council over its missile and nuclear tests. Beijing has become cooperative on UN actions. For the first time for a Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping will hold a summit with his South Korean counterpart in Seoul next month without first stopping in Pyongyang. North Korea extended an olive branch to Tokyo for an economic breakthrough, and Japan has agreed to ease some sanctions and offer humanitarian aid once North Korea reopens its investigation into the fate of abductees.
It does not take a genius to read Pyongyang’s motive. It is not simply out for the money, but to shake the traditional tripartite alliance of Seoul, Washington and Tokyo on security and North Korea policy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been publicly shunned by Seoul and Beijing, also may be looking for added leverage in a new relationship with North Korea.
The two countries will ultimately work toward normalization of diplomatic ties, but that could be far-fetched without palpable progress on denuclearization. Whatever the scope and pace will be, Tokyo must proceed with its Pyongyang relationship in a transparent diplomatic manner. Otherwise, it could risk its alliance with Seoul and Washington.
The North Korea-Japan deal also must serve as a wake-up call to Seoul. Rarely has Tokyo gone ahead of Seoul when it comes to North Korean affairs. We must seek out delicate, flexible and creative maneuvering to ease inter-Korean tensions and improve ties. It is time we revise our overall North Korea and foreign affairs policy.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 31, Page 30