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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #68: October 15, 2002

US and Japan Clash on North Korea

John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)

With five abducted Japanese scheduled to return to Japan after a 24 year absence on 15 October, the debate concerning whether or not Japan should normalize relations with North Korea is starting to heat up. The issue is particularly controversial due to the fact that it does not only concern Japan and North Korea but challenges the very posture of the United States towards its so-called "Axis of Evil" to which North Korea was included along with Iraq and Iran. The truth of the matter is that there is a conflict of preference between the US, which would like to use coercive and "pre-emptive" force, and Japan-South Korea which want to see the threat posed by North Korea extinguished through engagement and dialogue.

This fundamental difference in approach became all the more evident in the aftermath of James Kelly's (US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs) visit to North Korea last week. While Japan and South Korea welcomed the move, the international media evaluated the trip as nothing more than an attempt by the US to demonstrate its belief that engaging North Korea was a mistake.

Unfortunately, Japan cannot ignore this sentiment. In his article on the temporary home-coming of Japanese abductees, Teruaki Ueno of Reuters reminded his readers that any progress in ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang would hinge on how the US dealt with the communist state (9 October). He mentioned that Japan had no choice but to consider the US reaction before any decision on North Korea was taken. Ueno stressed that Japan risked upsetting Washington if it rushed to establish ties with North Korea and gave billions of dollars in aid.

According to the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), the outcome of Kelly's visit to Pyongyang officially ruled out engagement as a viable policy option for the United States. In its editorial to the 17 October issue, the FEER claimed that "engagement was never on the horizon" for the US. The editorial went on to suggest that the US was going through all the options only as a prelude to a policy announcement that did not include engagement.

This opinion was confirmed in a Baltimore Sun article entitled "Engaging Evil" written before Kelly made the trip. While praising the US government's decision to resume talks with North Korea, the article pointed out that North Korea was likely more "dangerous than Iraq" (since it is believed to possess enough nuclear matter to make two weapons), and insisted that dialogue was absolutely necessary before any "pre-emptive steps" were taken to remove the threat. Now that the US representative failed to make gains in his talks with North Korean officials, the US government feels free to move on with more coercive methods.

However, this determination contradicts all efforts made by Japan and South Korea towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Both Asian countries remain extremely sensitive to the use of force due to the fact that it would cause drastic regional and domestic instability in both countries, which have a substantial number of North Korean residents. Furthermore, as more facts surrounding North Korean spy activities and abduction cases in Japan come to light there is a growing awareness in Japan of the need to engage North Korea in order to bring Japanese citizens and their children back home safely. Any coercive methods risk isolating the North even further and preventing Japan from making any progress on this issue.

Unfortunately, the United States government views North Korea as one and the same with Iraq and is worried that any concessions taken in relation to the North risks destroying its chances of invading Iraq and removing all leaders who say 'no' to the US. There may also exist the worry that dialogue with a communist dictator in North Korea could undermine the US embargo of Cuba, which has long been evaluated by most countries as counter productive and has come under increasing scrutiny in the US as of late.

The fact of the matter is that the US government wants Japan and South Korea to place their concerns as secondary to Bush's aggressive agenda aimed at reasserting US dominance throughout the world. The international media needs to enlighten the US public and its decision-makers regarding the sensitivity and opposition that exists to current US tactics. The Bush administration's failure to take into consideration the interests of others will make its position in Asia increasingly dependent on coercive methods, leading to the evaporation of a willing alliance in the "war against terrorism" and creating increased animosity towards US plans and its presence in Asia.


  • Teruaki Ueno, "Japanese Abuductees to Visit Home Before N. Korea Talks", Reuters, 9 October 2002.
  • Editorial, "What Engagement?", Far Eastern Economic Review, 17 October 2002
  • "Engaging Evil", Baltimore Sun, 1 October 2002
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