No. 17 — April 28, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

Tensions in Northeast Asia may begin to ease as a result of two recent diplomatic breakthroughs — but not without considerable effort by all sides to address long-standing and deep-seated disputes. After a shaky start, Japanese and North Korean negotiators meeting in Pyongyang April 5 through April 7 wrapped up the first round of discussions since 1992 aimed at normalizing ties. Their brief concluding statement described "sincere discussions over various pending issues, led by 'settlement of the past,' in relation to realizing the normalization." However, the fact that language referring to Pyongyang's pet demand for reparations for Japan's harsh 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula made it into the communique while Tokyo's top priority — getting action on North Korea's alleged abduction of at least 10 Japanese from northeast Honshu in the 1970s and the 1980s — did not suggests that negotiators face a rough road ahead.

Similarly, the April 10 announcement by Seoul and Pyongyang of a June 12-14 summit in the North Korean capital — the first such meeting since the Korean peninsula was divided in 1945 into the communist North and the U.S.-backed South — was hailed by leaders from the United States, Japan and other Asian nations as ushering in a new era of peace and stability in the region. Yet the two sides could not agree on an agenda and still are far apart on such weighty matters as the long-term deployment of 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea to guard against threats from the North. According to experts, these difficulties suggest that negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang will be arduous and even may derail early in the process. In short, while the latest developments in Northeast Asian diplomacy are cause for optimism, it would be premature to pop champagne corks.

The renewed Japan-North Korean dialogue stems in part from Pyongyang's promise to Washington in September 1999 to cease ballistic missile tests while talks are underway designed to improve U.S.-North Korean relations and to stabilize the security environment (see JEI Report No. 37B, October 1, 1999). Japan-North Korean normalization discussions collapsed in 1992 when North Korean negotiators abruptly walked out of the talks after Tokyo demanded that Pyongyang provide information on the alleged kidnappings of Japanese citizens. Japan had begun to explore the possibility of resuming this initiative about two years ago, but the government suspended that effort as well as food and other humanitarian assistance in response to North Korea's August 1998 launch of a Scud-based Taepodong-1 missile over Japan (see JEI Report No. 34B, September 4, 1998). Relations between the two Asian neighbors became even frostier in March 1999 when Pyongyang dispatched spy ships to Japanese waters. Maritime Safety Agency ships and Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers chased the vessels, which were disguised as fishing boats, into the high seas (see JEI Report No. 13B, April 2, 1999).

Japan reciprocated North Korea's positive gesture on the missile-test moratorium and improved the climate for dialogue by announcing March 7 that it would provide food assistance to the famine-wracked country. In part because the two countries lack formal diplomatic relations, the 110,000 tons of rice destined for North Korea will be purchased on the international market by the World Food Program and distributed by this United Nations organization (see JEI Report No. 11B, March 17, 2000).

But while Tokyo's offer of humanitarian help apparently was successful in bringing North Korean officials to the negotiating table, it did not necessarily soften their position or discourage their usual brinkmanship. In fact, representatives of the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il again threatened to walk when Japanese negotiators refused to discuss compensation for Japan's 35-year colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. "We must address the past problems as the top priority or else we see no reasonable grounds for continuing the talks and will seek other ways," Ambassador Jong Thae Hwa, who headed the North Korean team, told reporters following the April 5 session. Mr. Jong called for a package that includes an official written apology, reparations for "damaged cultural heritage" and legal measures that would enable Koreans living in Japan as permanent residents to sue the government for colonial-era losses.

Ambassador Kojiro Takano, who led the Japanese delegation, once more rejected out of hand Pyongyang's demand for compensation on the grounds that during Japan's colonial occupation of Korea, the two nations were not at war. Mr. Takano also repeated a 1995 official statement issued by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that expressed "deep remorse and [a] heartfelt apology" for the suffering and the damage inflicted by Japan on its Asian neighbors and other nations during World War II and in the colonial period (see JEI Report No. 25A, July 7, 1995).

The Japanese diplomat did promise, however, to consider his counterpart's proposal to establish an expert committee to examine the "technical issues" related to compensation. In addition, Mr. Takano was said to have suggested that problems could be overcome "by looking for ideas in the next Tokyo round [of negotiations] and a following round [in Beijing]," hinting that Japan may agree to extend development assistance to North Korea in place of compensation, as it did when relations with South Korea were normalized in 1965.

North Korean officials apparently misconstrued Mr. Takano's message, claiming that the Japanese side "conveyed its intention to apologize for the past and to compensate in line with the apology." Mr. Jong further stated that the two countries would normalize relations "under the basis of liquidating the past, and then negotiate to resolve other pending issues." Mr. Takano denied that the two had reached any such agreement, stressing that Tokyo had not budged in its opposition to compensation.

Detailing Tokyo's priorities, the Japanese delegation head called for "appropriate measures" from North Korea concerning the alleged abductions. Mr. Takano underscored the government's position that the normalization of relations between the two countries hinges on the resolution of this nearly 30-year-old dispute. Although North Korea indicated in a December 1999 meeting between the two nations' Red Cross groups that it would investigate what it refers to as the "missing persons," Japanese sources do not believe that any action has been taken.  That conclusion reflects the fact that an official report issued by Pyongyang this past February declared that the matter was "settled" because none of the missing persons had been found. Mr. Takano also urged Pyongyang to keep its pledge to Washington concerning the cessation of nuclear missile development and voiced Tokyo's concern about intrusions by spy ships as well as about drug trafficking.

Japanese foreign policy professionals apparently were not anticipating progress at the first round of negotiations, regarding it instead as a get-acquainted session of sorts, insiders suggested. At the same time, Tokyo believes that it is better to have Pyongyang sitting across the negotiating table than to allow the creation of a wall of silence. "By engaging Pyongyang in the talks, we will put them in a situation where they have a lot to lose if they act irrationally, for example, [by] testing a missile," an unnamed official explained on the eve of the discussions. Nevertheless, the fact that the two sides remain adamant regarding the terms of their respective demands has not set the stage for an easy second round of talks in Tokyo, particularly in view of the inevitable demonstrations that will be staged by supporters of the families of the missing Japanese.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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