The signal from Pyongyang

Print edition : October 11, 2002

The Japan-DPRK summit signals Pyongyang's return to the international mainstream from prolonged diplomatic isolation.

IT is a fine irony that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, should have inched its way towards the international mainstream ever since January this year, when U.S. President George W. Bush identified it, alongside Iraq and Iran, as a critical component of an "axis of evil'', for the purposes of his global "war on terror''.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il sign a joint statement following their first-ever summit, in Pyongyang on September 17, 2002.-JAPAN POOL/AP

In the months since Bush turned the spotlight on it in this controversial fashion, the country has found itself as the focus of international attention more as a dialogue partner of important powers and less as the object of contempt that Bush envisioned. If this process began with a meeting that just "happened'', involving U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his North Korean counterpart on the sidelines of a regional forum in Brunei in July, the Japan-DPRK summit in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on September 17 illustrates how even an ally of the U.S. like Japan has found it expedient to engage an "evil'' regime through a historic summit.

In a sense, the complexities of the Korean question, a historical puzzle, and the transparent new thinking in Pyongyang itself may account for this apparent negation of the Bush doctrine of isolating and punishing the "evil regime''. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung was the first to indicate that DPRK leader Kim Jong Il had taken the initiative to invite Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for the September 17 summit. More important, Kim Dae Jung's prognosis that the DPRK leader would not have done that just to send Koizumi home empty-handed was somewhat prescient.

The `Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration', issued at the conclusion of the Koizumi-Kim Jong Il summit, surpassed all expectations. The two leaders virtually made a mockery of the historical animosities between their countries, so to say, as they laid out a road-map for the eventual normalisation of bilateral ties. More significantly, the Pyongyang Declaration sketches out security-related strategic commitments by North Korea.

The totality of the Koizumi-Kim understanding will lend itself to the interpretation that Bush's diplomatic offensive of portraying North Korea as an "evil'' manifestation of mankind's power play may have indeed influenced the positive thrust of the latest Pyongyang Declaration. Unlike in the case of Iraq, which entails U.S. pressure on that country to accept once again international inspections of its alleged facilities to make and deploy weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. had largely left North Korea to its own devices and those of its key neighbours such as South Korea and Japan during the run-up to the Koizumi-Kim summit. While this does not devalue the importance of Colin Powell's intervention in Brunei, the story of the Koizumi-Kim summit is largely one of regional diplomacy of the archetypal North-East Asian vintage.

A provisional translation of the Pyongyang Declaration, provided by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, portrays the regional dimension, which is distinguishable from the Japan-North Korean angle, in highly general terms with a specific sub-text. Tokyo and Pyongyang "confirmed that, for an overall resolution of the nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula, they would comply with all related international agreements''. Noting that both sides agreed to stay engaged on security issues, the Declaration says that "the DPRK side expressed its intention that, pursuant to the spirit of this Declaration, it would further maintain the moratorium on missile launching in and after 2003''. Both sides "confirmed the necessity of resolving security problems, including nuclear and missile issues, by promoting dialogue among (the) countries concerned''.

Officials of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) at the first pour of concrete for the foundation for a nuclear reactor in the Light Water Reactor project, being built under the Framework Agreement signed between Pyongyang and Washington in 1994, at Kumho in North Korea's northeastern coastal region on August 7, 2002.-JAPAN POOL/AP

The specifics of these assertions imply that the Kim Jong Il regime will not only extend its moratorium on the flight tests of ballistic missiles but also abide by its commitments to permit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to visit the suspected sites of fabrication of weapons of mass destruction in the country. The U.S.-North Korea Framework Agreement of 1994 had provided for such inspections as part of a deal, the other side of the bargain being a commitment by the U.S.-led West to build nuclear energy reactors, based on light water technology, in North Korea to meet its electricity needs. It was only several weeks earlier that a multilateral consortium began laying the foundation for the civil works of such a nuclear power plant.

North Korea's implicit reaffirmation of its own commitment with regard to nuclear inspectors is something that Koizumi may now project as a diplomatic success in much the same way as Russian President Vladimir Putin had portrayed his critical interaction with Kim Jong Il at the height of tensions in East Asia in 2000. Kim told Putin then that North Korea would give up missile development and the economic exploitation of space through commercial satellites if its overall economic needs and energy deficit were met through suitable international intervention. In a sense, it was Putin's take on Kim that led to North Korea's missile moratorium that is now in force, although the Russian leader was first viewed by his peers in the West as a naive interlocutor.

The overall thrust of the security-related provisions in the Pyongyang Declaration is to underline the importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the Japan-North Korea context. This aspect of their bilateral diplomacy is designed to serve as an assurance to Pyongyang that the IAEA inspectors, who might now be invited by Kim, would not seek to function as modern-day Orwellian agents of the U.S. inside a `Stalinist state' that North Korea continues to be viewed as in the West. The larger international implications are that Pyongyang may now think twice before selling its missiles or the related knowhow or both to countries such as Pakistan.

The link between the global aspects of the new Declaration and its bilateral framework is provided by an explicit recognition of the role that neighbouring countries such as South Korea and China could play to promote the eventual normalisation of Tokyo-Pyongyang ties. The statement said: "It is important to have a framework in place in order for the regional countries to promote confidence-building (even) as the relationships among these countries (themselves) are normalised.''

THE Koizumi-Kim summit took place in a regional context that came to be defined by the new rapprochement-related parleys that took place between the Koreas at various levels during the past few months. However, the Japan-North Korea understanding on bilateral issues falls in a stand-alone category. The Japan-North Korea normalisation talks, which have remained suspended for about two years, will resume in October this year. The posers in the Tokyo-Pyongyang normalisation process have more to do with their own historical baggage and less with the legacies of the Cold War.

Not surprisingly, the Declaration states that "the Japanese side regards, in a spirit of humility, the facts of history that Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of Korea through colonial rule in the past and (now) expresses deep remorse and heartfelt apology''. In a response to North Korea's pre-summit demand for "compensation'' for Japan's colonial rule, Koizumi promised Kim that Tokyo would provide Pyongyang with a wide array of economic assistance over a long-term perspective as might be agreed upon during the prospective normalisation talks.

On the issue of the abduction of at least 11 Japanese nationals by North Korea during the Cold War period for being put to espionage activities on behalf of Pyongyang, "the DPRK side (now) confirmed that it would take appropriate measures so that those regrettable incidents, which took place under (an) abnormal bilateral relationship, would never happen in the future''.

While Tokyo is pleased with the outcome of the talks, some people in Japan have begun to protest against what they tend to see as a Faustian deal by Koizumi, given that only four of the 11 Japanese in question are now believed to be alive. The overall issues, though, relate to the future and not the past.

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