Koizumi's North Korea Visit is a Drama Without a Script
James Schoff (The U.S.-Japan Foundation)
This article originally appeared in the "Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum" (http://lists.nbr.org/japanforum) on September 3, 2002: posted here with the authorís permission.
I have been interested in the recent discussion on Koizumi's planned visit to North Korea. Two facets of this development strike me as particularly important, and both are rather unpredictable.
First there is the US-Japan (and S. Korea) diplomatic/negotiating approach to N. Korea. News reports (Nikkei) said that Armitage and Baker were surprised by Koizumi's announcement when he told them about the decision at a meeting last Tuesday. Bolton had just strolled through Japan en route to Seoul and gave his tough speech there on Thursday, and it seems that he did not know about the decision either. Although a Japanese PM visit to N. Korea might be something that's been talked about and blessed in theory by Japan's two allies (the United States and South Korea), I don't get the impression that this particular decision or the timing was discussed as a group, which means the next two weeks will see pretty frantic and important counseling back and forth to make sure solidarity is maintained among the US, Japan and S. Korea. Best case: real progress is made. Worst case: the frantic counseling reveals cracks that remain (or widen) after an inconclusive visit is over.
Bolton's remarks to the Korean-American Association last week (see the State Dept. web site) don't mesh well with a Koizumi visit. If there is bilateral progress between N. Korea and Japan and/or some multi-lateral progress re: starting six nation talks, then the US will either have to ease up on its rhetoric (as just expressed by Bolton, which highlights the N. Korean threat in chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, missile proliferation, etc.) or push hard to make sure the talks address some of these issues (lest the US isolate itself from Japan and S. Korea｛and even further from Russia and China｝on this front).
The second facet is the Japanese domestic political situation. Here I have less info and will be brief, but it strikes me that this decision comes at an odd time and might indicate a bit of desperation on the part of Koizumi (unless he honestly sees an historic opportunity and has the guts to risk his "face" for possible forward movement on this front). As I mentioned before, he's got a very important Cabinet shuffle coming up and a leadership election in the main opposition party, all of which could (emphasize "could") be vital to the success of his remaining days in office (either by solidifying support in the Cabinet and power vis-a-vis political and bureaucratic tribes, or by igniting a re-alignment of parties and moving quickly for a new election). The governor's race in Nagano is a lesson in the possible rewards for candidates willing to look to the voters for support of radical reforms, over the heads of vested interests. Isn't now the best time for Koizumi to focus on domestic politics and see who is with him and who's against him?
So why gamble now on a trip to N. Korea when the public is more concerned with domestic issues? Don't get me wrong...I am all for trying and see little downside for Japan and her allies, but I do see potential downside for Koizumi personally if nothing comes of the visit or, worse, if N. Korea stages some sort of propaganda stunt at Koizumi's expense. I applaud Koizumi's decision to go...I just don't understand it.