US-Japan Splits in North Korean Engagement

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By Aaron Young – The world eagerly anticipates the North Korean nuclear declaratory report, which is due out around the New Year. The US-Japan relationship stands at a crossroads in approaching North Korea at this critical juncture. On the one hand, the dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program would remove the gravest threat to the Japanese homeland and US forces stationed in the region. On the other hand, the promise by the United States to remove North Korea from the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries complicates Japanese efforts to have its grievances over its abduction cases dating to the 1970s addressed.

It is expected that this will be a first of several drafts to account for its nuclear activities, fissile material and other aspects of its program. With experts on the ground disabling the five megawatt Yongbyon reactor, many feel that the diplomatic efforts of Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill are moving in the right direction. There is cautious optimism that the reports can allow for dismantling of the nuclear program. Should the North Korean government hold its word to declare and disable its nuclear activities and program, there is a likely chance that North Korea could be removed from the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries.

The Japanese government is placed squarely into a “Catch-22” situation where a hard-line position against North Korea could isolate it regionally and within the context of US-Japanese bilateral relations. Tacit acceptance of the de-listing process would remove the bluster of its long-time adversary, but would be political suicide domestically over the emotionally and politically charged abduction issue. Maintaining a hard-line position would be a boon during election season, but isolate Japan within US-led regional efforts.

The brief visit to Washington last month by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda failed to sway President George W. Bush from de-listing North Korea without addressing the Japanese abduction issue. At the time, President Bush offered to go as far as keeping the issue in mind when approaching this issue, but failed to elaborate what exactly this meant. The abduction issue has always placed US officials in an uncomfortable situation with the North Koreans, as this is a Japanese domestic issue.

It should be noted that the Japanese abduction issue was never a criterion for North Korea’s placement on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries. Pyongyang was added to this list in 1987 after the mid-air blasting of a Korean Airlines flight off the coast of Burma. Yet, the promise by the United States to de-list North Korea has drawn the ire among Japanese political leaders because they equate the abduction issue with terrorism.

Select panels in both houses of the Japanese Diet have passed resolutions condemning any future move by the United States that exonerates North Korea without fully atoning for the abduction issue. Several Japanese politicians have gone as far to say that the move would severely damage the US-Japan security alliance and would create a double-standard in the global fight against terrorism.

Closer cooperation and increased diplomatic efforts by the United States are needed to quell potentially damaging political fires in Tokyo. Failure to do so could jeopardize the dismantlement phase. The Kim regime may be unwilling to give up its last trump card against the demands of its historical foe, Japan. There is a distinct possibility that Pyongyang could reverse the progress made by the United States and other members of the Six-Party talks. The debates over the validity of the declaratory reports and over the delisting process are far from over within and between Washington and Tokyo.

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