ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2004-0514-RxL

Why is Koizumi going to Pyongyang?

Robyn Lim

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Robyn Lim

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS of Robyn Lim. sjk]

Why is Koizumi going to Pyongyang?

Robyn Lim

American intelligence estimates, according to press reports, say that North Korea has eight nuclear weapons, rather than the two previously estimated. So why is Koizumi going to Pyongyang on 22 May? Because he is allowing the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to drive a wedge into the US-Japan alliance.

In September 2002, the "Dear Leader" in Pyongyang came close to success in that ambition when Koizumi visited North Korea. Now he is trying once more to divide Japan from the United States, and to tap into Japanese money. That way, he can evade efforts by America and its allies to cut off sources of revenue for his vile regime.

No doubt, Kim Jong Il senses opportunities with Japanís July Upper House elections coming up. Koizumi will visit Pyongyang to bring back the eight relatives of the five Japanese abductees released in October 2002. (These were Japanese previously kidnapped by North Korea in order to train North Korean spies.) If Koizumi comes home with the relatives in tow, that will boost his electoral prospects. But it would also be a great victory for the Dear Leader, and a most dangerous one for Japanís security.

Since North Korea is an hereditary dictatorship, Kim Jong Il doesnít have to worry about elections. But that doesnít stop him from exploiting the electoral imperatives of leaders of democratic states. And Koizumi, now in his fourth year in office, is into his dangerous "legacy" period, when he will be starting to focus on how he wants to be remembered.

In September 2002, Kim Jong Il came close to provoking a crisis in the US-Japan alliance, although this was subsequently papered over. The Americans were not consulted in advance about Koizumiís trip to Pyongyang. Of course, once Koizumi had told them he was going, the United States felt it had no choice but to put the best face on things, and try to influence what Koizumi did and said in Pyongyang. Even after Koizumi had been told that North Korea had a clandestine uranium enrichment program, he still insisted on going to Pyongyang.

Then Kim Jong Il miscalculated because he had left alive only five Japanese abductees (out of thirteen). So the backlash in Japan made it harder for the Dear Leader to divide Japan from the United States. Still, he didnít give up. He would have noted that Koizumi - whose electoral propaganda called him "the lionheart" - had tamely put his signature on the so-called Pyongyang Declaration even after the truth had emerged that eight of the Japanese abductees were no longer alive. In January 2003, Koizumi went to Kharbarovsk, the birthplace of Kim Jong Il, presumably to continue to negotiate with emissaries of the Dear Leader.

On 12th May 2004 the working groups of the six party (China, United States, Japan, Russia and both Koreas) talks convened in Beijing. As expected, little was achieved. In the lead up to these talks, North Korea made tactical "concessions" -- that it will not sell fissile material to terrorist groups, that it might agree not to enlarge its nuclear stockpile and so on. All that of course is meant to put the United States on the back foot, as the party unwilling to "negotiate". And there are many of those in the US whom Lenin would have called "useful idiots" -- ever willing to give North Korea the benefit of the doubt. Given North Koreaís long history of deceit, the United States is rightly insisting that any agreement in relation to North Koreaís nuclear programs should be complete, irreversible and verifiable.

For its part, South Korea misses few opportunities to bribe and appease North Korea -- out of fear of war, and fear of the economic costs of having to absorb the North if reunification were to occur as a consequence of regime collapse in the North. The victory of President Roh Moo-hyunís Uri party in the April parliamentary elections will facilitate Kim Jong Ilís ability to drive wedges into the US-South Korea alliance. Now Roh has been cleared of charges that may have led to his appeasement, as has come roaring back. His party is already going after senior South Korean generals considered too close to the United States, using corruption charges as its instrument.

Nor is Beijing a disinterested broker. To the contrary, China is North Koreaís quasi ally, albeit one that China cannot completely control. And nothing would please Beijing more than to see widening cracks in the US alliances in East Asia. Presumably, Kim Jong Il co-ordinated strategy with China on his recent visit to Beijing. China, South Korea and Russia have already offered North Korea shipments of oil if it "promises" to halt its nuclear program. Now that North Korea has persuaded Koizumi to visit Pyongyang, it will have even brighter prospects of isolating America.

In the lead-up to the Beijing talks on 12 May, Koizumi made two concessions to North Korea. He agreed to separate the abduction issue from the nuclear question, and has also agreed to discuss the abduction issue bilaterally -- rather than within the framework of the six party talks, where Japan would have America at its side. The establishment of diplomatic relations is also on the agenda when Koizumi goes to Pyongyang . No doubt, in return for all these concessions, Koizumi will agree to some anodyne statement that North Korea will agree to freeze its nuclear program.

We also might wonders what promises of "economic assistance" might be in the wind this time. Last time Koizumi went to Pyongyang, figures of as much as five to ten billion dollars in disguised reparations were being aired. Many of these spoils are likely to go to the construction companies linked to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Koizumi, much given to populist gestures, would love to pull off something like Nixonís "breakthrough visit" to Beijing in 1972. That ambition is likely to make him putty in the hands of someone as ruthless as Kim Jong Il. Shinzo Abe, LDP secretary general, tried to head off Koizumiís visit. But Abe could not prevail against the combination of Koizumiís vanity and the Dear Leaderís cunning. If Kim Jong Il succeeds where he failed two years ago, the US-Japan alliance could soon be in as much trouble as the US alliance with South Korea.

* ICAS Fellow and Professor of International Relations at Nanzan University, Nagoya, and the author of The Geopolitics of East Asia.

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