Among the trinity of erstwhile enemies with whom North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is seeking to normalize relations - the US, South Korea, and Japan - mending fences with Tokyo is beginning to look like the most complicated of the three.
Talks between the two countries, renewed in April after an eight-year hiatus, came to an end yesterday with much posturing and little progress. Negotiators appear to be locked at a level of largely symbolic and emotional issues that fail to address broader security concerns in East Asia, where many remain uneasy about North Korea's missile program.
And compared to the hugging and toasting that went on during the North-South Korea summit earlier this summer, marking a kind of global coming-out party for Mr. Kim - it was clear that talks between North Korea and Japan lack the warm-and-fuzzy feeling of reunited brothers - instead portraying an image of grudge-bearing neighbors.
Japanese press described the head of the delegation from Pyongyang as looking rather unhappy during the talks, complaining that the Japanese "wouldn't listen" to them and that nothing was done to turn down the volume on the loudspeakers set up by right-wing protesters outside the negotiating rooms.
North Korea says that before they establish relations with Japan, the first order of business must be an apology for Japan's pre-World War II occupation of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea also wants a substantial compensation package for Japan's colonization of the country between 1910 and 1945. And Japan has presented its own prerequisite for progress: information on the whereabouts of 10 of its citizens it claims North Korea abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Standoffish meetings and political nonstarters may be the pace at which Japan is prepared to move, in part as a nod to the "go slow" attitude of many policymakers in Washington toward relations with North Korea. And Kim Jong Il's ability to demand such a high price for dtente with Japan draws a picture of a once-isolated regime sitting in an unprecedentedly comfortable position in the aftermath of June's successful Koreas summit in Pyongyang.
"One-time confrontation and distrust between the nations cannot be resolved in one or two meetings between the countries," says Jong Thae-hwa, the head of the North Korean delegation, "but the bilateral talks are moving in a positive direction."
North Korean memories of Japan are largely negative, predating the 20th-century colonial period and spanning generations. Now, North Korea says it will not move forward in establishing relations with Japan until Pyongyang receives an apology as well as some financial compensation.
"The apology itself is very important to resolve the two countries' relations, because the two countries cannot be equal without the Japanese side's apology," says So Chung- on, head of the international affairs bureau of Chosen Soren, or the Association of Korean Residents in Japan. "Only when Japan expresses a sincere apology, can they have the mind to compensate for its past, he says, "and economic aid is quite different from compensation."
Japan has balked at demands for apologies from other Asian neighbors for its wartime behavior. In an ongoing struggle, several Chinese-Americans filed suit in Los Angeles this week against 20 Japanese companies that forced them to work without compensation during World War II.
But Japan did agree to give reparations to South Korea in 1965, which North Korea sees as a precedent payment that has been building interest over the past 35 years.
Reports at press time, when the talks ended, suggested that Japan may be willing to provide some form of financial compensation, as well as additional food aid.
Still, some in Japan feel that history is being dug up by North Korea to exact a higher price for normalization of relations. "I don't know of any country that has apologized for colonization of another," says Masahi Nishihara, president of the National Defense Academy in Yokosuka, Japan. "The North Koreans feel they are negotiating from a position of strength, so they're enjoying raising those issues and making us Japanese feel morally inferior. It's difficult to deny them on that issue," he says. "We're in an inferior position, so I suppose we have to come up with some kind of financial aid or compensation."
Partly in rebuttal to the claims to compensation, Japan has raised the issue of the whereabouts of 10 of its nationals it says were abducted by North Korea for the purposes of spying.
Dr. Nishihara says that while the abduction issue is far from Japan's most important concern, North Korea's weapons program is. And although Pyongyang has ceded to US requests not to launch any additional missiles since an August 1998 test over Japanese territorial waters, a strong message was sent and received. North Korea has weapons capabilities that it might be lured away from using for a price - massive financial assistance.
"They might give us some smiles, but we can't forget that they do have sharp teeth," says Nishihara. "North Korea will probably maintain its missiles for as long as possible, because that is its only option to intimidate Japan."
Thomas Foley, the US ambassador to Japan, told reporters this week that the danger North Korea proved itself to be two years ago is still present. "That [launch] changed overnight the feeling that the cold war is over ... and that threat hasn't completely disappeared."
Ultimately, Japan might not make great strides in the process of thawing relations with North Korea until the path Washington takes in its talks with Pyongyang becomes clearer. "The US and [North Korea] relationship is where the real progress will be made," says Tony Namkung, an expert on North Korea, formerly at the University of California at Berkeley, and now director of Aurora Partners Ltd. in Murray Hill, N.J.
"Only once they address these political issues, can they decide on matters like family abductions," Mr. Namkung told foreign journalists here this week. "We're definitely not at a point in the relationship where some kind of political accommodation will allow the diplomats to do their work."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society