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Friday, Dec. 13, 2002

CAUTION COUNSELED

Japan still crucial in handling Pyongyang: expert


Staff writer

With tensions mounting over North Korea's uranium enrichment program and the seizure and release earlier this week of a North Korean ship transporting 15 Scud missiles to Yemen in the Arabian Sea, what should Japan do?

A Washington-based expert on Korean issues recently said in an interview in Tokyo with The Japan Times that Japan can still play a significant role in ensuring that the 1994 Agreed Framework is not prematurely scrapped.

"In Washington, there are opponents to the Agreed Framework (who have been) waiting for the day when they can kill the framework since 1994. This is their moment," said Victor Cha, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University. Cha has consulted with several administrations on policies related to the Korean Peninsula.

"But in the immediate term, we all want to be avoiding a quick and thoughtless throwing away of the agreed framework."

The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, known as KEDO, grouping the United States, the European Union, Japan and South Korea, was set up under the 1994 agreement that promised North Korea fuel oil and nuclear power plants in return for freezing its plutonium-based nuclear arms program.

Based on the agreement, two light-water reactors are now under construction in North Korea. But at the strong urging of the U.S., KEDO's executive board agreed during a meeting last month to suspend future deliveries of fuel oil to North Korea.

"If the light-water project stops, that means the North Koreans are no longer under any obligation to have international inspectors monitor the plutonium in Yongbyon," Cha warned. "It could have a very negative impact."

Concerns over this very scenario grew Thursday, when North Korea expressed its intention to resume operations at its nuclear facilities because of this decision.

Given the current stalemate in bilateral talks over the five Japanese who were abducted to North Korea and are currently on a homecoming trip, as well as the fate of their families left in North Korea, Japanese officials are focused on resolving this bilateral issue.

But it is because of this situation that policy coordination among the U.S., Japan and South Korea would be highly effective, according to Cha.

Washington puts emphasis on coordination among its allies, which explains the frequent trips to this region by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, he said. "You want to have everyone send the same message to North Korea."

So, Tokyo should coordinate policies with Seoul as soon as the result of South Korea's presidential election is known next Thursday, he said.

On the recent Scud missile incident, Cha said its significance was not that North Korea was shipping missiles, which is not illegal as Pyongyang has not signed a nonproliferation treaty, but that the U.S. had apparently made a policy decision to try to stop such shipments.

"It sent a clear signal that U.S. intelligence is following the missile trade, and if we need to, we'll stop them," Cha said.

"The U.S. said very clearly that they are not looking at attacking North Korea. But if the North takes actions that create a crisis similar to June of 1994, I don't think this administration will tie its hands by not contemplating that option," he said, referring to the 1994 crisis when North Korea rejected International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and the U.S. was in preparations for a possible war.

But Cha added that President George W. Bush's administration so far believes that the North won't do anything "stupid" because it is in a different situation than it was in 1994.

They have normalized relations with most European Union countries and made a major breakthrough with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang, he said. "So they have a lot more to lose now if things go bad."

In the short-to-medium term, one of the biggest carrots the three allies can offer would be to normalize ties between Japan and North Korea, Cha said.

"If and when that happens, that opens a whole new avenue for North Korea. Japan will be in a position to support North Korean membership in international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank.

"No one is offering carrots right now," he acknowledged. But he pointed to the possibility of bringing these "bigger carrots" into the picture once Pyongyang responds to international concerns over its nuclear program.

"I think in many ways, Japan can play an important role in terms of trying to impress upon North Korea how important it is for them to address this problem."



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