North Korea

Approach with care

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2000, 12:00am


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IF all goes to plan, diplomats from North Korea and Japan will sit down together on Tuesday to resume negotiations to open diplomatic relations that have been on hold for the past eight years. It's a big 'if', considering Pyongyang's unpredictable record of failing to turn up at previous summits or calling them off at the last minute. But should the talks go ahead, Tokyo would be well advised to proceed carefully.

The need for caution is obvious given the dangerous actions in recent years of the world's last Stalinist state. It fired a ballistic missile over Japan in August 1998, shaking the nation badly and disrupting the balance of power in the region. The North's spy boats violated Japanese waters last March and its gunboats clashed with the South Korean navy in June.

And there is another reason for extreme care: domestic opinion. Polls show a vast majority of Japanese want their government to be cautious over opening diplomatic relations. Only a small proportion - around 10 per cent - believe it is acceptable for Tokyo to take an active role, which is what the Foreign Ministry appears to be close to doing. The Japanese public's reticence is understandable. Added to the missile concerns, 10 Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by the North's agents in the 1970s and 1980s are still missing. Pyongyang has denied they were kidnapped but has agreed to search for the missing. It was on this issue that the two nations' talks foundered in 1992, but there are fears that Tokyo might not be prepared to press its case as strongly this time around. What is clear is that Japan is now working in unison with the United States and South Korea on the possibility of engaging the North.

While welcoming North Korea to the negotiating table, the wisest strategy is to wait for further signs from Pyongyang that it is reforming itself into a better international citizen, before making any important concessions.

There was an encouraging diplomatic flurry by North Korea's envoys recently as they attempted to forge ties with several countries.

But more reforms, especially internal changes to ease the plight of ordinary North Koreans, are needed before this closed nation should be fully engaged. The 'carrot and stick' approach is helpful in this delicate diplomatic balancing act. Perhaps, though, with luck, it might be time to go a little easier with the stick.