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Coaxing Out Asia's Hermit

September 09, 2002

Japan's prime minister has scheduled an unprecedented visit to North Korea next week that could go far toward easing tensions in one of the more dangerous parts of the world.

Junichiro Koizumi's planned one-day summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il represents another small opening of North Korea to the outside world after nearly 60 years of secretive Stalinist rule.

The last decade has seen Pyongyang swing back and forth, at times appearing approachable by Japan, South Korea and the United States but at most times remaining deaf.

Internal and external pressures are pushing the North to open up now. Increasing numbers of North Koreans are trying to defect when they are lucky enough to reach other countries--especially China, Pyongyang's longtime ally. North Koreans at home are ill fed or starving. The economy is a shambles. President Bush includes the country in his "axis of evil."

Koizumi is expected to press Kim to explain what happened to at least a dozen and perhaps as many as 100 Japanese kidnapped by North Korea over the years, for reasons unknown. Japan also wants North Korea not to test-fire another missile over its territory, as it did in 1998.

Cooperation with Japan can be lucrative, but decades of enmity stand in the way. Japan ruled unified Korea brutally as a colony from 1910 to the end of World War II, when Korea was partitioned into the non-Communist south and the Communist north. Japan was a rear staging area for U.S. troops during the 1950-53 Korean War. Nearly 38,000 U.S. troops are still in South Korea, and about the same number in Japan.

Japan has provided economic aid to South Korea and China after reestablishing diplomatic relations, and North Korea is hoping for more assistance and acceptance. In recent years the country has allowed several European nations to establish embassies. In recent months it has also started overhauling its economy, paying farmers more for rice, removing subsidies for unprofitable businesses and letting some prices increase to reflect actual costs.

There is no reason to expect North Korea's relations with other countries to progress quickly and evenly. Koizumi needs to return home with some visible sign of progress to show Japanese who were frightened and angered by the 1998 missile test, but he has to be a hard bargainer as well.

One accomplishment in this summit would be persuading Kim that it's in his best interests to negotiate with Tokyo, Seoul and Washington rather than sell missiles to any country willing to buy them.

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