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Friday, Dec. 30, 2005


New Pyongyang approach needed: summit architect

Staff writer

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine and his surprise visit to Pyongyang in 2002 all reflect a diplomatic decision to defy "gaiatsu," or foreign pressure, a former top diplomat recently reckoned.

News photo
Hitoshi Tanaka, senior fellow of the Japan Center for International Exchange, gives an interview at his office in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka, well-known for engineering Koizumi's historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in September 2002, said gaiatsu was a guiding influence in Japan's domestic reforms during the postwar era, leading to more open markets and legislation needed to ensure the nation's security.

But in the past decade, there has been a growing sense that Japan should be making policy decisions at its own discretion, and Koizumi is an adamant advocate of such thought, he said.

"The Yasukuni issue is not only about the visit itself . . . it is about Prime Minister Koizumi's beliefs on diplomacy," Tanaka said in an interview with The Japan Times.

Tanaka, who recently published the book "State and Diplomacy," resigned from the Foreign Ministry in August and is now a senior fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange, a nonprofit think tank.

Tanaka said the Foreign Ministry has tried to persuade Koizumi to stop openly visiting Yasukuni, explaining its negative impact on Japan's neighbors. One source close to Koizumi said that when a top government official tried to dissuade him, he just turned bright red with anger and stubbornly refused.

Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals as well as the war dead, on Oct. 17, prompting fierce criticism from China and South Korea, which subsequently canceled high-level meetings planned with him.

Although Tanaka said he acknowledges Koizumi's determination, he hinted that he should have tried to achieve his goals without going to Yasukuni.

Japan and neighboring nations must prevent nationalistic sentiment from causing political clashes, Tanaka said. "It is necessary to expand joint interest toward the future, such as the issue of North Korea and creating a concept for the East Asian Community."

He also said that while Japan would not stop China and South Korea from taking up historical issues, a different approach was needed.

"It should be taken up in a different framework, such as joint studies by historians," he said.

Tanaka said China and South Korea are not the only nations that emotionally react to Japan's past aggression, recalling more than 30 instances of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations with North Korea before the 2002 summit in Pyongyang.

During the process, North Korean officials repeatedly demanded that Japan pay compensation for its harsh colonial rule and provide detailed information on those forcibly taken to Japan, he said.

Tanaka said the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Bureau chiefs had always hoped to start talks with North Korea. So shortly after Tanaka became director general of the bureau, he began negotiating with Pyongyang in October 2001 through a North Korean official often described as "Mr. X."

At that time, North Korea's relationship with the United States was souring because neoconservatives in the Pentagon had acquired tremendous influence in Washington. North Korea apparently wanted to reach out to the U.S. through America's key ally, Japan.

"It was strategically reasonable for North Korea to improve its relationship with Japan," Tanaka said. "For Japan, mending ties with North Korea, which was a threat to the nation, has long been a diplomatic task."

But it was not easy for Tanaka to negotiate with his North Korean counterpart.

"In North Korea, we didn't know for sure what kind of role the person plays in the regime, even if the person is ranked high," he said. "Our task was to make sure that the person actually had the power to execute" what was promised.

So Tanaka asked him to arrange the unconditional release of a Japanese reporter who was detained there in 1999 for allegedly spying on the communist nation, he said. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun reporter was released in February 2002.

When two North Korean patrol ships fired shots at South Korean patrol ships after violating its territorial waters in June 2002, Tanaka told "Mr. X" that North Korea needed to apologize for the incident, he said.

North Korea expressed regret the next month that was widely interpreted to be an apology.

Such efforts led to Koizumi's Sept. 17 summit with Kim, who shockingly admitted that its agents kidnapped 13 Japanese nationals, five of whom are still alive and were allowed to come home.

Asked about the fact that the U.S. was opposed to Japan's rapprochement with North Korea at the time, Tanaka merely said diplomacy with North Korea involves the interests of other countries as well, including the U.S., China and South Korea.

Six nations -- North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia -- are negotiating with Pyongyang over its nuclear arms ambitions. But little progress has been made at the six-party talks since the fourth round was held in September.

Tanaka noted it would take some time before the North Korea nuclear threat is resolved, adding that Pyongyang is not a country used to solving international disputes with negotiations.

"It has conducted guerrilla warfare, fought the Korean War and (continued to) clash with South Korea," he said. "It is a country that has strong suspicions" about others.

Tanaka pointed out that the six-party talks are losing momentum because growing criticism in the U.S. of President George W. Bush and his handling of Iraq is forcing Washington to focus its foreign policy on Iraq.

But if North Korea is trying to buy time by sabotaging the talks, public sentiment in Japan, the U.S. and other nations will stiffen against the North, he said.

"If North Korea is continuing to develop nuclear (arms), it will suffer the consequences," he said. "Time is not benefiting either side."

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