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Friday, April 25, 2003

North Korea policy hijacked

Tokyo's never-ending capacity for emotional overreaction, irrational group-think and back-to-front foreign policies has reached new heights over North Korea. Somehow Pyongyang's remarkable willingness to admit and apologize for former abductions of Japanese citizens has been turned around 180 degrees to become a blunt instrument for demonizing that regime.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's September 2002 breakthrough in relations with North Korea has been hijacked by the rightwing here and turned into a reason for not having a breakthrough.

The long journey into deep irrationality began with the question of whether the North Korean children of the former abductees should be allowed to go to Japan. North Korea has repeated its earlier promise to let the parents or grandparents visit Pyongyang to talk to the children and try to persuade them to go. But Tokyo refuses to allow such visits, despite its earlier promise to the contrary in the September 2002 agreements with North Korea for normalizing relations.

Tokyo insists that Pyongyang should, in effect, force the North Korean-educated, non-Japanese speaking children to go and live in Japan, whether they want to or not. Worse, it now insists that it will take harsh measures to enforce this absurdity. As a result, the Koizumi promises of normalized relations have been scrapped.

In any normal society, policies so obviously contrary to common sense, not to mention earlier promises and agreements, would soon come under scrutiny. Yet even progressive media outlets and commentators in Japan have gone along with the government line. Hints that some of the abductees or their relatives are less than happy about being forced to remain in Japan are ignored or covered up. The sending of abductee delegations to the United States and the United Nations to demand, in effect, that North Korea be listed as a terrorist nation for refusing Tokyo's twisted demands is reported as serious news, despite the fact that almost everyone in the media knows how the abductees and their relatives are heavily controlled by strongly anti-North Korean elements in Japan's extreme rightwing.

Two factors have helped mold public opinion in this rigidly anti-Pyongyang direction. One is a spate of media reports about the North Korean regime's former atrocities dating from the 1970s. This has created a strong mood of popular disdain for that regime and of support for Tokyo's strange maneuvers.

But South Korea, which knows far more about these atrocities and has suffered far more from them than Japan, has not gone this emotional route. Precisely because it knows its northern neighbor so well, it is doing all it can to encourage Pyongyang's current efforts to liberalize, to wean it away from the evils of the past. Needless to say, this kind of pragmatic common sense passes right over the heads of emotional Japanese commentators.

The other factor was Washington's highly fortuitous -- too fortuitous methinks -- "discovery" that North Korea was allegedly seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capacity, just as Koizumi was returning in triumph from his September 2002 talks. This has been combined with the abductee issue to create an image of a belligerent North Korea rattling rockets and threatening all manner of ugly attack against Japan.

Rightwing elements within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have played a key role in organizing these turnarounds, with Chief Deputy Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe in the vanguard. Abe's hawkish instincts are no secret; he has in the past hinted at Japan's need for nuclear weapons. He went to extreme lengths not only to create Tokyo's strange demands over the abductee children but also to tie them in with a raft of other demands against North Korea. He insists that a settlement of all these demands is crucial to Japan's security, and that the U.S. is somehow obliged to demand such a settlement as part and parcel of any settlement reached with Pyongyang on the nuclear question.

Meanwhile, the nuclear question, too, suffers a 180-degree reversal at the hands of Tokyo hawks. North Korea's quite reasonable insistence that it can go back to its pre-1994 nuclear program if the U.S. does not abide by its 1994 promise to normalize relations and withdraw its various threats to attack North Korea, is turned around to become North Korean nuclear blackmail to try to force the U.S. into a range of unreasonable concessions.

In the murky minds of Japan's rightwing, a demand to normalize relations and refrain from illegal aggressions is somehow supposed to be unreasonable. It gets worse. Following the U.S. attack against Iraq, we now have some of the more extreme rightwing hawks here talking openly about hopes for a pre-emptive U.S. attack on North Korea.

Japan's ultranationalist rightwing goes one step further. It says the U.S. attack on Iraq is a continuation of the same U.S. hegemonistic aggressiveness that Japan allegedly suffered from in the past. It now openly uses the anti-U.S./British insults and slogans of Japan's militaristic wartime years. It wants Japan to attack North Korea single-handedly, without U.S. involvement.

As if all this was not enough, Tokyo has also wanted to insist that it be included in any talks with North Korea on the nuclear question, even though it is obvious that North Korea's demands can only be negotiated with the U.S. Pyongyang's call for the talks with the U.S. to be purely bilateral was twisted to become yet another proof of North Korean intransigence.

Fortunately China stepped in to drain this swamp, with its proposals for tripartite talks in which Beijing would act as honest broker between Washington and Pyongyang. U.S. agreement to the talks, with Japan excluded, has already caused some trauma in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, North Korea has said it wants to have separate talks with South Korea. As Japan is left impotently on the sidelines, it should reconsider whether it really needs its hawks, its rightwing extremists, its lemming-minded media, its highly emotional public opinion and its seeming inability to distinguish between cause and effect in foreign policy.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and honorary president of Tama University. A Japanese translation of this article is at www.gregoryclark.net

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