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Japan, N. Korea end deep freeze

Japan's Koizumi will become his country's first prime minister to visit North Korea Tuesday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 16, 2002


Leaders of two of the most unlikely states in Asia, Japan and North Korea, shake hands Tuesday in a major effort to normalize relations, after a two-year diplomatic freeze and almost a century of hostility. Junichiro Koizumi, elected leader of the world's second largest economy, and Kim Jong Il, inheritor of the world's most closed and controlled state, will talk for several hours in Pyongyang, on the first visit ever by a Japanese leader to the North Korean capital.

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If Prime Minister Koizumi secures prospects for normalized diplomatic relations with Mr. Kim – a relationship Tokyo and Pyongyang have never had – the visit could well be regarded as historic. The two states, separated by the Sea of Japan, have suffered dysfunctional relations and deep animosity dating to Japan's 35-year occupation of Korea, which ended in 1945.

Normalization would put Japan on important new footing in the region, analysts say. The beleaguered nation would improve ties with both Koreas, creating a climate of greater congeniality between North and South. Such diplomatic success could also win Koizumi plaudits at home.

The summit comes as the US is preoccupied with a possible Iraq campaign. Indeed, the diplomacy seems to many analysts a bid by the Japanese to break out of a deep-freeze over North Korea often blamed privately, in Tokyo, on US inattention due to the war on terror, or on a lack of US strategy on the North.

The Bush team has been divided over how tough to be on North Korea, with strong hawks battling lesser hawks.

"The Koizumi effort is the only way to 'end run' the current [Bush administration] logjam on Korea policy," a highly placed US government adviser says.

Koizumi will carry to Pyongyang a promise of some $10 billion in aid – a figure comparable to the compensation paid when Japan normalized with South Korea in 1965, and a sign of Japanese apology for World War II occupation.

As always with the North, the wild card is the mercurial Kim. The leader is viewed with great skepticism in Asia, based on his history of making, then breaking, deals.

But Kim, for his part, faces shortages of food, power, and funds: North Korea's economy has shrunk by half in recent years, and desperately needs foreign currency. Moreover, a sunny summit could also benefit the North by revitalizing South Korea's now-troubled "Sunshine Policy." President Kim Dae Jung, originator of the policy that supported taking baby-steps toward normalized diplomatic relations, faces a national election this December against opponents far less willing to engage generously with the North.

Kim, who recently termed the summit "epochmaking," has lately shown a willingness to distance himself from fellow "axis of evil" list leader Saddam Hussein – by indicating, last week, that he will allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into the North in coming months.

Still, if the summit is to be a success, analysts say, Koizumi will need concessions on a range of issues. Kim must clear the air on 20-year-old accusations that 11 Japanese were abducted by the North. He must also extend a moratorium on testing of the "No Dong" missiles, hundreds of which are currently aimed at Japan.

Analysts who say Koizumi is the only leader in Japan willing to propose internal reforms worry that the prime minister will harm himself politically if the summit fails. Most Japanese regard the North, much more than China, as a security threat, and welcome a decrease of tensions.