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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.

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Perhaps as a result of these doubts, the Japanese have slightly scaled back expectations in recent days. "It is difficult to speak of normalization of relations with North Korea," says a foreign ministry source. "Koizumi will put everything on the table, [but] the prime minister's aim is simply to find out if there is the political will. Can Kim make a political decision to talk about all the issues?"

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Japanese sources say there have been "more than 100 informal meetings" between Japanese and North Korean contacts over the past year, and a steady building of momentum leading up to the summit.

Japan, for its part, is taking great care that the summit does not overstep the good relations with the US that are a bedrock of Japan's foreign policy. Until now, the practical effect of the Bush approach in the region has been to put initiatives by allies Japan and South Korea on hold.

That is why Japan is approaching the summit with great care. "Japan wants to redirect a slow process, but not alienate its No. 1 ally, the US," says Ronald Montaperto, of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a defense think-tank in Hawaii.

Former President Clinton supported the Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with the North that won South Korea's president a Nobel Prize. But since the early days of the Bush administration, diplomatic movement in North Asia has been in deep freeze. Bush pulled the plug on the Clinton "Perry Process," a US bid to engage the North that worked in tandem with South Korea's Sunshine Policy. Then Bush branded North Korea an "axis of evil," bringing diplomatic relations to a standstill.

"You can't have a Sunshine Policy and an 'axis of evil' policy at the same time," says one European scholar of Asia, in Beijing.

Now, the White House affirms that it will meet with North Korea for talks. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage last week signaled that he might go to Pyongyang shortly after Koizumi. Though Bush administration hawks favor putting maximum immediate pressure on the North to halt its weapons exports, lesser hawks are willing to accept smaller victories.

"The US is not so concerned that Koizumi is out ahead [of the US]," a former US Bush administration official agrees. "We are more concerned that he get something for his efforts. The main question is: Has Kim really decided to open, or is this another of his gambits for face and money?"

"Mainly, what the US wants Kim to do is to start playing by the rules," says Mr. Montaperto, "The US and Japan have been working closely. What the US wants is a breaking of the cycle of Kim Jong Il relations," in which Kim makes promises, renegs on them, and hopes for better offers from neighbors. " I don't see how Kim loses anything by this," he says. "He pleases China, Russia, and South Korea. He needs Japan, and Japan funding. And he may pressure the US."

"In Japan, we are always making negative comments about North Korea," adds a foreign ministry official. "I've never heard any positive comments. But a certainty in the US that North Korea will one day fold is not enough. In the meantime we need to engage the North, to work toward dialogue, to pursue and explore. That is a fact of life in this part of the world."

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