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Japan, N. Korea Open Normalization Talks - 2002-10-28

Japan and North Korea are set to begin their first high-level meeting since North Korea admitted to having a covert nuclear-weapon programs. Two-days of normalization talks are to begin Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur.

Japan will have a difficult balancing act to accomplish when it kicks off discussions with North Korea. On one hand, Tokyo is anxious to engage Pyongyang in dialogue. On the other, Japan, along with its allies, has demanded a swift and visible end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program before other issues can be addressed.

The nuclear issue "will be a dominating subject," predicts Lee Jung-Hoon, professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "The Japanese, along with the United States, as well as South Korea will put a priority on the resolution of the nuclear issue and that will be the condition for solving all the other problems."

Among those "other problems" are 13 Japanese nationals who were kidnapped by North Korean spies in the 1970s and 80s. Their fate was not known until last month when North Korea, in its first summit with Japan, admitted to having taken them, that some were still alive, and they would be allowed to travel home.

Five of kidnap victims are visiting family in Japan, but the two countries have yet to agree if they will be allowed to choose to stay in Japan or return to North Korea.

Professor Lee Jung-Hoon says the Japanese government will be under public pressure to resolve the fate of the kidnap victims.

"I think the Japanese opinion as a whole, particularly with the kidnapped Japanese issues has really spiraled, to become a major force," he said. "I think the Japanese public is angry and they want some answers. And until those answers are met to the satisfaction of the Japanese public, it will be very difficult for Prime Minister Koizumi and his government to push ahead with the normalization talks."

North Korea and Japan have never had diplomatic ties. Previous attempts to establish relations collapsed and only North Korea's admission about the abductees cleared the way for the normalization talks to take place.

Professor Hajime Izumi, of the Japanese University of Shizuoka, says North Korea, has been brought to the negotiating table by the prospect of economic aid.

"It is quite clear. For North Korea, the final goal of normalizing relationship with Japan is to get very large-scale economic assistance," said Professor Izumi. "In exchange for solving all of Japanese issues, such as the nuclear or the other security issues, or the abduction cases, North Korea wants to get normalization fast, and afterwards they want large-scale economic assistance from Japan. If they can get economic assistance, there is some hope they can restore the economy."

Communist North Korea's economy is in tatters after successive years of natural disasters and economic mismanagement.

In recent months there have been some dramatic economic reforms implemented by the authorities in the North. But as Bradley Babson, a consultant for the World Bank points out, the prospect of an improvement in the North Korean economy, or the injection of large-scale aid from countries like Japan, may raise further security concerns.

"I think that if one looks at the future with a view that economic reform may succeed in the North and they get some help from Japan. The question is, what would a successful economic policy in North mean for the security equation?" asked Mr. Babson. "One, I think is important is in the area of weapons of mass destruction. If North Korea begins succeeding in economic reform and acquiring additional income, are they going to spend the money on their military, or are they going to spend it on deepening economic growth? And there I think there is a big question mark."

But other analysts are more optimistic. They believe that North Korea's economic dire straits provides an unparalleled opportunity not only for Japan, but also the United States and South Korea, to pressure Pyongyang to drop its nuclear program and engage with the international community.

"We should note that it is a good opportunity for all of us to put pressure on North Korea," suggested Professor Izumi, "because North Korea is getting weaker, especially in terms of the economy, and they want a guarantee to assure their regime and to get economic cooperation from the outside world."

At a meeting Saturday in Mexico, the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and the United States agreed to work together to divest North Korea of its nuclear potential. It is not yet clear what the allies will do if North Korea fails to comply.