The divisive nature of North Korea
The United States and Japan appear on a collision course in a corner of the world that both of them view as vital to their national security.
That corner of the world is northeast Asia, specifically the Korean peninsula and, more specifically still, North Korea.
The differences between the two were etched clearly in a visit to Washington last week by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda when he and US President George W. Bush sparred politely over the question of how to deal with North Korea.
The problem is simple. Mr Bush is anxious for a foreign policy 'success' that may be inscribed in his 'legacy' as president, and it looks as though detente on the Korean peninsula may be the best he can hope for after a record of failure, disappointment and, on occasion, half-success in the Middle East.
The feeling is that Mr Bush may soon claim the North Koreans have lived up to their agreements of September 19, 2005, February 13 of this year and, finally, October 3, when they signed on to a deal to disable everything at their nuclear complex at Yongbyon and provide a nuclear inventory.
On the basis of that record, Mr Bush, when he met Mr Fukuda, could cite with a straight face what he said were 'measurable results' for disabling Yongbyon.
The results were measured, as the Americans were quick to point out, by a US-led technical team in Yongbyon, making sure all the critical elements were out of commission - that is, 'disabled' and ready for complete dismantlement.
Mr Fukuda knows exactly what Mr Bush has in mind as the next step; he wants to be able to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism.
However Mr Fukuda believes the US should not drop North Korea from the list of terror-sponsoring nations if it refuses to come clean on how many Japanese are held there, how many have died in captivity and what the North plans to do about them. Since Pyongyang is not likely to respond to these concerns, Tokyo will be holding out the kidnapping of Japanese as an obstacle to rapprochement with North Korea for a long time.
As long as Japan focuses on North Korea, South Korea can view rising tensions between Tokyo and Pyongyang as a diversion from problems that the North poses for it.
As of now, South Korea's best interests are not altogether clear. A conservative government may well demand more from Pyongyang than the present administration has been getting in return for all its aid and trade. North Korea may choose to exacerbate tensions, as it has done so often in the past.
Lost in this discussion, however, is the underlying question: is North Korea still a terrorist state? As long as the present regime remains in power, the answer is probably 'yes'.
North Korean diplomacy has succeeded in dividing allies while Pyongyang makes few if any real concessions.
Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals