Japan, US and the North Korea dilemmaWASHINGTON - Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda may have reason to feel that President George W Bush more or less snubbed him in their meetings here last week.
Unlike a series of other heads of state, Fukuda was not invited to Bush's homestead in Crawford, Texas. Nor was there any happy talk about going to Crawford "next time you're here".
The chill in the atmosphere surrounding the White House welcome for Fukuda contrasted with the warmth surrounding the visit of Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister who stepped down in favor of Shinzo Abe, Fukuda's much maligned predecessor. Koizumi delighted in the visit to Crawford, posing in a cowboy hat, as had China's former president, Jiang Zemin, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
So rightist and pro-American was Abe that he too undoubtedly would have got the coveted invitation to Crawford had he stayed around long enough. Clearly, however, the US and Japan will have to be on much better terms than they are now if Fukuda is to join the ranks of foreign visitors to the Bush ranch. Right now, the US and Japan appear on a collision course in a corner of the world that both see as vital to national security, that is, northeast Asia, specifically the Korean Peninsula.
The differences between the two were etched clearly as Fukuda and Bush sparred politely over the question of how to deal with North Korea. The problem is simple. Bush is anxious for a foreign policy "success" that may be inscribed in his "legacy" as president, and it looks as though detente on the Korean peninsula may be about the best he can hope for after a record of failure, disappointment and, on occasion, half-success in the middle east.
The sense is that Bush may actually be able to claim the North Koreans have lived up to their agreements of September 19, 2005, February 13 of this year and, finally, October 3 when they signed on to a deal for disabling their entire nuclear complex at Yangbyon and coming through with a list of their nuclear inventory.
On the basis of that record, Bush, winding up his meeting with Fukuda, could cite with a straight face what he said had been "measurable results" for disabling Yangbyon. The results were measured, as the Americans were quick to note, by a US-led technical team in Yangbyon making sure that all the critical elements, including the five-megawatt reactor and the reprocessing facility, were out of commission, "disabled" and ready for complete dismantlement.
Fukuda knew exactly what Bush has in mind as the next step. Bush wants to be able to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism. Never mind that North Korea has never acknowledged, much less apologized, for blowing up a Korean Air 707 over the Indian Ocean 20 years ago or assassinating 21 people in an attempt to kill then-president Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon in 1983. Never mind a long list of episodes along the demilitarized zone between the two countries, and never mind the kidnapping of hundreds of people, most of them South Korean fishermen but also a much smaller number of Japanese.
It's the Japanese, of course, that Fukuda worries about. No one thinks for a moment that Fukuda worries about a blown-up Korean plane or the assassination of a bunch of Koreans.
No way, however, can Fukuda endorse removal of North Korea from the US list of terror-sponsoring nations if the North refuses to come clean on how many Japanese are held there, how many have died in captivity and what North Korea plans to do about them. Since North Korea is not likely to respond to such concerns, it’s pretty safe to guess that Japan will be holding out the kidnapping of Japanese as an obstacle to rapprochement with North Korea for a long time.
The Japanese stand may seem not only highly nationalistic but also rather petty in the grand scheme of relations in Northeast Asia. While anyone can feel for the grieving families of kidnap victims, how important are they in a region where many millions have been killed in wars for centuries culminating in the bloodshed of World War II and then the Korean War?
The answer is that the Japanese kidnap victims stand as symbols among Japanese of their power complexes, of the rule they once held over the Korean peninsula and much of China, and of a willingness, under certain circumstances, to go to war again.
Japan today cannot "punish" North Korea for holding its citizens, much less stage an attack on the North Korean nuclear complex similar to the attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The risks would be far too enormous for Japanese trade and commerce, for Japan's military alliance with the US, for Japanese relations with China, a rising military as well as commercial power.
Less certain, though, is how Japan will respond in the next few years. The rightist inclination of a series of Japanese leaders suggests that Japan is likely to do away with article nine of the "peace constitution" as dictated by General Douglas MacArthur after World War II.
Article nine forbids Japan from waging war overseas and prescribes tight limits on the extent to which Japan can build up militarily. Japan's economy is so huge that the Japanese military establishment possesses enough sophisticated weaponry to count as a major military power, but without the constitutional constraint Japan would present a far more serious threat than it now poses in the region.
The response of Koreans to Japanese rearmament is going to be complex. As long as Japan focuses on North Korea, South Korea can view rising tensions between Japan and North Korea as a diversion from problems that North Korea poses for South Korea. If incidents were to occur, however, it's safe to assume that South Koreans would not be sympathetic with Japan. Memories of Japanese domination of the Korean peninsula run deep, and the underlying fear persists that Japan might in some unforeseen conflict attempt again to inflict its own harsh rule.
For now these fears are abstract. The United States bases its strategy in the region on a balance in which the US and Japan cooperate for mutual defense. The US-Japan "special relationship" would completely break down were Japan to resort to a "punitive" military policy toward North Korea.
The US-Japan relationship, however, rests on a quid pro quo under which Japan pays lip service to US aims in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US also wants Japan to resume refueling ships in the Indian Ocean - a long-standing deal that was blocked by Japan's upper house, now under the control of foes of the Liberal-Democratic Party that has held sway over Japan for so long. In the interests of Japanese support elsewhere in the world, it's conceivable Bush could hold off on removing North Korea from the list of terrorist countries.
Then what? North Korea would not be able to assume the role it craves in the international financial system, and the North would go on playing games with its nuclear program, delaying on shutting everything down, refusing to get rid of the six to twelve nuclear warheads it's produced and making trouble for South Korea in deals for trade and transportation.
In this impasse, South Korea's own interests are not altogether clear. A conservative government may well demand more from North Korea than the current government has been getting in return for all its aid and trade. North Korea may choose to exacerbate tensions, as it has done so often in the past.
If Bush delays removing North Korea from the terrorist list, then possibly the six-party diplomacy of the past few years could fail. If Bush removes North Korea, however, then US-Japan relations are likely to deteriorate. Lost in this discussion is the underlying question, iIs North Korea no longer a terrorist state? If nothing else, North Korean diplomacy has succeeded in dividing allies, a strategy that enhances North Korea's own security as surely as nuclear weapons.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.