When North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted and then apologized for the kidnappings of Japanese citizens during the rule of his father, the late Kim Il Sung, it came as a surprise to many observers. Does his about face mean that North Korea will also be more forthcoming in talks with the United States or was it just an effort to obtain more Japanese economic aid?
Korea specialist Bill Drennan says money was the major motivation for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to apologize for the Japanese abductions of 20 and 30 years ago. Mr. Drennan, the deputy director of research and studies at the United States Institute of Peace, says North Korea wants to pave the way for talks on normalizing relations with Japan, in hopes that Tokyo will then provide billions of dollars in aid.
"This is a country that for all intents and purposes does not have a functioning economy," he said. "This would go a long way toward doing a lot of good things for Kim Jong Il and the ruling elite there."
The director of the Center for Asian Studies at American University, Hyung-kook Kim, agrees, saying Kim Jong Il made a business deal for his own domestic purposes.
"When you have so many people leaving the country because of hunger and for some other reasons, there might be some kind of objections within the existing government structure," he said. "So probably Kim Jong Il figures out that the best way is at least providing a minimum level of living standard, so that he could maintain his power there."
Professor Kim says Pyongyang may also hope that by being conciliatory toward Japan, it can show the world it is not part of an axis of evil, as President Bush has said. Professor Kim says North Korea sees what is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Kim Jong Il knows what is at stake.
Bill Drennan says eventhough the Bush administration has listed North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as members of an axis of evil, the United States would not use the same method to address the problem posed by each country.
East Asia specialist Gordon Flake says North Korea sees itself as possibly next in line, after the United States deals with Iraq. The executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs says North Korea's overture to Japan is part of an effort to establish stronger regional ties to help protect itself.
"North Korea has been moving quite rapidly to shore up its relationships with China, with Russia, to reinvigorate North-South talks, and now to move quite dramatically to hopefully establish some sort of relationship with Japan," he said. "And I think on a strategic level, it is driven by a desire to make sure that it is firmly ensconced in its regional relationships as a way of protecting itself, if you will, against a perceived threat from the United States."
After his trip to Pyongyang, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the North Korean leader agreed to extend the moratorium on missile tests, was open to talks with the United States on the North's suspected nuclear weapons program, and would welcome international nuclear weapons inspectors.
Bill Drennan says North Korea often makes lofty-sounding agreements at summit meetings, but it remains to be seen if there is tangible progress.
"Clearly it is a plus that he has extended the missile test moratorium and that he has not signaled, but stated explicitly that the door is open for dialogue with the United States," he said. "Those are good signs. I hope he means it. And if he means it and if this really does represent a tangible manifestation of change on the part of North Korea, then it could be the dawn of a new era."
Gordon Flake says he hopes the signs coming out of Pyongyang indicate a new trend that will benefit the U.S.-North Korean dialogue. At the least, he says, the breakthrough with Japan is likely to strengthen the hand of U.S. diplomats at the State Department who favor engagement with Pyongyang as opposed to more hard-line officials at the Defense Department who, Mr. Flake says, are inclined to isolate or pressure North Korea.
Professor Hyung-kook Kim is more skeptical, saying he doubts that North Korea's conciliatory approach to Japan will be carried over to its dealings with Washington.
"There is no issue such as apology between the U.S. and North Korea. It is easy to say 'I am sorry' for things that happened in the past. But it is not going to be that easy for North Korea to keep the promise... The main issue dealing with the U.S. is a promise -[a] promise to maintain the missile moratorium or allow nuclear inspections, and those promises... You know, when promises are kept, promises are implemented, then the U.S. will be very happy and go on for further negotiations with North Korea."
Until such promises are kept, Professor Kim says he does not see much chance for progress between Washington and Pyongyang.