Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi braved the critics and risked his political career on a milestone trip to North Korea Tuesday, signing a historic agreement that will start normalization talks next month, open a new security dialogue for North Asia, and possibly draw the US in for more diplomacy on the future of the Korean Peninsula.
But in some ways, Kim Jong Il, the "Dear Leader" of the North, stole the show. Mr. Kim not only explained the status of a dozen Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents between 1975 and 1985 considered the No. 1 emotional issue in Japan, and the key to any future normalization but also apologized to Mr. Koizumi for the abductions. It was stunning move, considering that until Tuesday, North Korea denied any knowledge of the cases. The North Korean leader said only four of 11 known abductees are alive, and that they are free to return to Japan.
"It is regretful, and I want to frankly apologize," Kim told Koizumi. In a press briefing hours after the first-ever meeting between heads of the two states, Koizumi said that Kim blamed the abductions on "military elements" in North Korea, and promised they would not happen again.
On TV feed from Pyongyang (no foreign reporters were allowed) Koizumi announced that "it has been agreed for a resumption of normalization talks with the North... we will move from a hostile relationship to a cooperative relationship."
For his part, Koizumi expressed regret, but did not offer a formal apology, for Japan's 35-year history of colonial rule over Korea. Agreements over what and how Japan would financially compensate for its often brutal occupation of the North, were not forthcoming as of this writing. However, Japanese officials have stated that "while we will not call these payments of 'reparation,' we accept the idea of compensation, along the lines offered to South Korea." In 1965, Japan agreed to send $500 million in wartime amends to Seoul.
In a joint communique released by the Japanese foreign ministry, Kim promised cooperation on several crucial points, including an indefinite moratorium on testing missiles, a key Japanese request, and agreement to abide by international standards on nuclear inspections. However, the communique did not mention the abductees something that worries the families of the deceased who say they want to know how and why their loved ones died.
Koizumi flew to Pyongyang, arriving early on a clear fall day. He met Kim for an hour during which he laid out the Japanese position, broke for lunch, then spent the better part of the afternoon in discussions with one of the most reclusive world leaders across a shiny table in a guesthouse outside the capital.
The summit is the latest in a series of quick and unexpected openings by the North. Early this summer, after a naval shooting in the Yellow Sea in which a North Korean gunboat sank a South Korean vessel, relations around the Peninsula appeared tense.
Then in late July, following a meeting between Kim and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Kim expressed a desire to reengage with both the US and Japan. North Korea's top diplomat, Paek Nam Sun, separately met with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Japanese envoy Yoriko Kawaguchi during an Asian forum in Brunei in early August. It was the first public meeting between a senior Bush administration official and a representative from the North.
Then on Aug. 30, came the ultimate surprise: an announcement that Koizumi would visit a country no Japanese leader ever had.
"Kim Jong Il has recognized that he needs to make some tactical changes in his approach, to ensure the continuation of his regime. He is changing his monetary policy, improving relations with his neighbors, and trying to move toward the US," says David Steinberg, a Korea specialist at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. "It is a matter not of the survival of North Korea, but of Kim's administration. He is under a great deal of urging from Putin in Russia, and from the Chinese."
The talks also took place just as a renewed set of exchanges between the North and South are under way. In the South, Kim's Millennium Party faces a tough national election campaign this fall, amid widespread dislike of the president's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North. Kim would like to see his Nobel Prize winning diplomacy vindicated, and in recent weeks, the North and South have engaged in a series of openings: a soccer sports exchange, family reunions, ministerial talks. Work to reopen a rail link closed for more than 50 years, between Seoul and the North, will begin today.
For ordinary Japanese, the longstanding question of those kidnapped, an issue that ended talks on relations two years ago, was the main concern.
While 11 individuals are confirmed as kidnapped, one Japanese paper today stated the number could be as high as 60. The 11, including a 13-year old girl taken in 1977 on her way home from school, were abducted and brought to Korea, according to a North Korean agent who defected and confessed, several years ago. In Korea, the Japanese were kept as language instructors, and forced to act as hostage emissaries of Japanese culture.
Eight families of the abducted formed a highly visible lobby in Japan, in recent years. The spokesman for the group, Shigeru Yogatu, father of the 13-year old, said in a press conference Tuesday that knowing only the status of his daughter was not enough.
"We want research on what happened to our family members. We are not satisfied."
After denying Japan's allegations for years, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il yesterday apologized for a North Korean group that kidnapped 11 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and '80s. The four surviving captives, below, are free to return home.
Yasushi Chimura, an apprentice carpenter, 23 at the time of his capture.
Fukie Hamamoto, his fiancee, then 23, an employee at a clothing shop. The couple disappeared from Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan in July 1978 after dining at a restaurant and exchanging engagement gifts in a traditional ceremony. Their car was found near the sea.
Kaoru Hasuike, a then 20-year-old college student.
Yukiko Okudo, then 22, cosmetician. They vanished in Niigata Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast in July 1978 after they told relatives and colleagues they were going on a date. Mr. Hasuike's bicycle was found at a library near a beach where they were supposed to have met.