U.S. policy change on North Korea has Japan scrambling for leverage
(Yomiuri Shimbun, The (Tokyo) (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) TOKYO _ The U.S. policy change in favor of taking North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism will require Japan to reshape its approach to resolving questions of Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese in the 1970s and '80s.
The U.S. move to drop North Korea from the terrorism blacklist signifies the loss of one of the most potent tools that could be utilized by Tokyo and Washington to pressure Pyongyang to make progress on the abduction issue.
A joint statement issued Friday at the close of a two-day Group of Eight foreign ministerial meeting in Kyoto strongly urged North Korea to break the long-standing impasse on the abduction issue.
As symbolized by the U.S. intention to remove North Korea from the State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring nations, however, international pressure on Pyongyang to improve its conduct has clearly been weakening.
The Japanese government, for its part, must now devise new ways to find a solution to the abduction issue.
"You have continued your committed support of our efforts on the abduction issue, haven't you?" Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said to his counterparts from the other G-8 nations on the second and final day's session Friday of the Kyoto meeting.
All the participants sitting around the table nodded quietly.
The subsequently released joint statement incorporated references to the importance of resolving the abduction issue as well as the questions of Pyongyang's nuclear programs and ballistic missiles.
One of the Japanese officials present at the meeting appeared relieved, saying, "That means the Japanese government's profoundly strong desire has been fulfilled."
Komura, the chairman of the Kyoto conference, also was buoyant. "Japan's efforts to solve the abduction problem have been firmly backed by all (the meeting's) participants," he said, referring to Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States.
Later, in a joint press conference with Komura, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted the United States "has pressed very hard to have North Korea sit down with Japan" to resolve the abduction issue.
Vowing Washington is "going to continue to press this case at every opportunity," Rice said, "The United States retains plenty of leverage to deal with North Korea going forward," adding, "It is extremely important to the United States...that this issue be resolved."
However, many analysts in Japan are skeptical about whether the "firm backing" as expressed by the G-8 ministerial meeting participants in Kyoto can actually lead to a solution.
As a "reward" for North Korea's declaration of its nuclear activities, international sanctions against Pyongyang likely will be softened.
Already, a number of sanctions adopted on the basis of a U.N. Security Council resolution passed after the North's missile launch and nuclear test in 2006 have been gradually eased.
Under these circumstances, any "new leverage" Japan might exercise in its bid to move the abduction issue forward might be limited to economic and energy assistance the nation would extend to North Korea on condition the issue be resolved.
The energy aid to Pyongyang, equivalent to 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, is supposed to be provided if North Korea lives up to the planned disabling of its nuclear facilities during a "second stage" of the six-party talks on realizing a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Four participants in the six-way talks other than Japan _ China, Russia, South Korea and the United States _ are said to have finished delivering a total of about 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to North Korea.
Japan has refused to extend any energy aid to North Korea in the absence of tangible progress on the abduction issue.
But questions are being raised as to whether Japan can maintain this stance.
A government source says Japan might take part in the fuel oil assistance framework "in the event Pyongyang makes progress on the problem in a clear-cut manner, such as having several abductees returned to Japan."
However, signs are slim Pyongyang will act in a way favorable to the eyes of Tokyo.
North Korea, in an official working-level meeting with Japan in Beijing on June 11 and 12, made the pledge to carry out "reinvestigations" into the abduction problem.
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Since then, two weeks have passed. However, Japan and North Korea have not agreed upon specific arrangements to effect Pyongyang's promised reinvestigations.
After the June 11-12 talks, there has been no communication to Japan from Song Il Ho, the chief North Korean official in the working-level talks.
Some legislators in the ruling coalition parties have said the U.S. decision to consider removing North Korea from the terrorism blacklist might have led Pyongyang to give short shrift to the need to seriously undertake the promised reinvestigations.
(c) 2008, The Yomiuri Shimbun.
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