Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.02.10

How to Deal with North Korea under New Regime

At the end of the last year, North Korea' leader Kim Jong Il died suddenly. He was succeeded by his third son, Kim Jong Un, who is still young and without much experience. Apparently, his father had appointed Kim Jong Un to succeed him, but that appointment would not automatically result in him becoming the nation's real leader. Many observers have pointed out that the new regime is unstable and I share their view. We have to pay close attention to what is happening in North Korea, and we must consider how best to deal with the new regime under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.

In response to the succession, significant changes by China toward North Korea have not been evident. But Kim Jong Un is said to be interested in China's opening-up and reform policy, and, if he does so, this may result in bringing the two countries' relations closer.

As for the United States, earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo to meet his counterparts. So far as I can tell from reading the news reports on these talks, there do not seem to be any new notable developments. As expressed in my prior column of two years ago, the biggest issue for the United States is a lack of seriousness in negotiations with North Korea; although there have been personnel changes in the U.S., the situation has not changed at all.

As for Japan, we should try to solve the issues of North Korea's nuclear weapons and its abductions of Japanese. Now that North Korea has a new regime, one cannot but emphasize this point too much.

If one compares the American attitudes toward Iran and North Korea, the differences are obvious. In dealing with Iran, the U.S. is serious and is acting quite forcefully in attempting to make Iran submit. It has determined to implement economic sanctions. It has requested that others cooperate with the U.S. U.S. banks will not be able to do business with banks of countries that do not cooperate with the U.S.

Briefly explaining why there are such differences between the U.S. attitudes toward North Korea and Iran, Iran is a threat to the U.S. given its importance to the broader situation in the Middle East and due to its role in terrorism. By contrast, North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons and, in this regard, it is further advanced than Iran, which is currently enriching uranium. The U.S., however, does not regard North Korea as constituting as big a threat to it as Iran. The Unites States appears to believe that because North Korea is surrounded by China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan, all of which are military and/or economic powers, the U.S. should not have the sole responsibility for solving North Korean issues.

It is obvious, though, that unless the U.S. changes its nuclear posture and assures North Korea that it will be secure, North Korea will not abandon nuclear weapons. With its global security posture, it is understandable that the United States does not want to assume the primary responsibility for resolving North Korean nuclear issue, but turning a blind eye to it will not solve anything. Departing from its prior position, Japan should advise the U.S. about what must be done to compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.

As for the issue of the abductions of Japanese nationals, it is time that the Government of Japan start negotiating with North Korea with resolve. There are those who claim that Japan should impose stronger sanctions on North Korea, but I do not believe that that approach will lead to any solution of the problem. Underlying such debates on policy options toward North Korea is the hope for imminent collapse of that country. That kind of thinking makes talking with North Korea difficult. When engaging in diplomatic negotiations, if you know that the other party wishes for your collapse, it is infeasible to continue negotiations on that basis. Moreover, if North Korea collapses, its people, as well as Japanese in the country, will suffer tremendously.

Negotiating with North Korea is difficult and it is inescapable that both Japan and North Korea will have mixed emotions. It is all the more important, therefore, that both parties negotiate with level-headedness. During the Edo period, Hoshu Amenomori, a foreign policy advisor to the Tsushima clan, described his negotiations with Korea that "both parties negotiated with honesty, without deception and fights." Perhaps because Amenomori worked for the Tsushima clan, he is not so well known but he was one of top intellectuals of the time, on par with Hakuseki Arai. Until Amenomori got involved in the negotiations, they were not going well because the Japanese feudal government had been making unreasonable demands of Korea and Korea had resisted; this led the Tsushima clan to rewrite an official letters from both sides in order to avoid antagonizing each side. As Amenomori had pointed out, a genuine solution cannot be achieved by just unilaterally demanding adherence to views that are one-sided.

This applies, as well, to the abduction issue. Thus far, the Japanese side has not accepted the results of the negotiation and has demanded that North Korea address the issue sincerely and with resolve. For its part, North Korea has apologized and has explained that its investigations have their limitation. In order to reconcile these two, differing stances, ultimately both sides will need to enter into talks "with honesty" and, if that can be achieved, an ultimate resolution of the issue may be possible.