The Rising East


Hold the applause
for outcome of summit
between Japan and N. Korea

Please pardon a note of skepticism amid the mild euphoria that came out of Tokyo and Pyongyang after the brief summit meeting in Pyongyang between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan and the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il.

The New York Times reported they had reached a broad agreement to begin normalizing relations. The Los Angeles Times quoted Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea watcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, saying the summit displayed "a complete change" in North Korean diplomacy. A Washington Post columnist, Jim Hoagland, said Koizumi was able to phone President Bush with "important, good news."

In Asia, the People's Daily in China hailed "progress in solving major thorny issues." The Hankook Ilbo in Seoul asserted that "the international community will have to reassess its view of the North if Kim Jong-il fulfills his promises." The Japanese press, however, seemed muted.

Perhaps the most skeptical was the Far Eastern Economic Review, which contended in an editorial just before the summit: "As with every agreement Pyongyang has made, it will renege on its commitment at the critical moment."

Relatives of the Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and '80s shouted slogans Monday demanding the return of their loved ones, during a rally in Tokyo.

In ventures like this, the devil is in the details, especially in Asia where symbolism counts for so much. Consider: Kim did not go to the airport to receive Koizumi but sent a subordinate. There was no welcoming ceremony, nor did throngs of citizens turn out to greet the guest, nor were Japanese and North Korean flags displayed along the street.

Kim did not appear in public with Koizumi, nor was there a state banquet, nor did Kim show up for the press conference at the end of the visit. Koizumi's stay lasted only 11 hours, not the usual two or three days, and the North Korean press played down the whole event. On the day after the summit, there were no follow-up articles; it was almost as if the meeting had not happened. All of this does not augur well for the future.

The North Korean admission that at least 11 Japanese -- the number is not clear -- had been abducted was startling, but it was the North Korean Red Cross, not the government, that made the disclosure, and Japanese officials who revealed that at least six had died. A poll in Tokyo showed that a large majority of Japanese applauded the summit but many were angry about the kidnappings and deaths -- and blamed the Japanese government as well as the North Koreans.

Kim denied knowing anything about the abductions, blamed them on intelligence operatives, said they had been punished and vowed it would never happen again. In perhaps the most authoritarian regime on Earth, it was an absurd account intended to save Kim's face. Unwittingly, he gave President Bush another reason to call North Korea "evil."

What Kim and Koizumi agreed on was a bit vague. They signed a declaration saying:

>> Japan and North Korea would seek to establish diplomatic relations, with negotiations to begin in October.

>> After diplomatic relations have been normalized, Tokyo and Pyongyang would discuss (means negotiate) Japanese economic cooperation (means reparations) for 35 years of Japan's harsh rule of Korea.

>> The two governments would discuss the status of Korean residents of Japan. About 600,000 Koreans, many of whose parents and grandparents were forced to migrate to Japan as laborers, live there today. Some have allegiance to Pyongyang, some to Seoul, and many are Japanese in all but passport.

>> Japan and North Korea would not threaten each other's security, and North Korea would extend its moratorium on testing long-range missiles, one of which was shot over Japan in 1998.

Meantime, a more concrete development in North Korea last week was the start of work on two rail lines, one along the east coast and the other on the west coast, that Pyongyang said would be hooked up with rail lines in South Korea. The official news organization, Korean Central News Agency, asserted that "the whistle of the train for reunification may blow across Korea."

Given the belligerent posture of Pyongyang during the last half-century, its record of broken agreements and its penchant for diplomacy by diatribe, the whistle that Koreans hear may be no more than someone trying to get past the cemetery in the dark of night.

Richard Halloran is a former correspondent
for The New York Times in Asia and a former editorial
director of the Star-Bulletin. His column appears Sundays.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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