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Tempered Hope in Asia

September 20, 2002

North Korean President Kim Jong Il's admission that his countrymen kidnapped Japanese citizens cannot undo the harm done, and his apologies will not wipe history's slate clean. But his gesture does seem to have removed a psychological obstacle to future dialogue between Japan and North Korea--if doubts raised by some Japanese relatives of kidnapping victims can be addressed. They want more proof about the fate of their loved ones, and Pyongyang and Tokyo should provide it.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has eased Asian tensions by inducing Kim to agree to extend a moratorium on missile tests beyond 2003 and to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Reaching detente with Japan could mean increased economic assistance for North Korea, not only from Japan but from many other countries that have been waiting for the right signals from that backward, isolated country.

China also could feel the benefits of this development, because North Korea, with its economy a shambles and large sectors of the population ill fed or starving, leans heavily on its massive neighbor. Diminishing the flow of impoverished North Korean refugees to Chinese territory is a priority for Beijing.

As dramatic a breakthrough between the two Asian countries as this meeting appears to be, Kim was speaking to Koizumi with President Bush in mind. It was Bush, after all, who teamed North Korea with Iraq and Iran in the "axis of evil" and now is threatening to make one member of that infamous club pay very steep dues.

The North Koreans reportedly told the Japanese over and over that they wanted to talk to the United States--something the U.S. has heard in the past, only to have North Korea turn away at the last minute. Washington knows that its concerns about North Korea's nuclear reactor programs and export of missiles to countries such as Iran and Pakistan are best addressed face to face. To help clear the way for that, North Korean and Japanese leaders should address the pain of relatives who have suffered from the kidnappings for too long.

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