In the spring of 1992 I published an Article in the South Korean government-backed journal Korea and World Affairs on the succession problem in North Korea in which I detailed misrule of the North Korean government and the harsh and oppressed conditions under which the citizens of that country live. Then a decade later on a live radio debate on Radio Nippon I was accused of being a "North Korean agent" by the Japanese parliamentarian Hirasawa Katsuei for having called for Japan to open direct, high-level negotiations with Pyongyang aimed at settling their outstanding differences and establishing diplomatic relations. One might wonder what had snapped in order to transform me from a South Korean flunky to a North Korean agent, but my reading of the situation has not changed at all. What has happened it that the international environment and the attitude of the United States have changed dramatically.
The demilitarized zone on the Korean peninsula was one of the front lines during the Cold War, and any transgression across it by either side was liable to set off World War III, thus there was no military solution for Korea, only a possible military nightmare. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union broke up, North Korea lost a vital source of cheap energy and raw materials, putting its economy into a tailspin. Meanwhile, Kim Il-sung, the only leader the republic had ever known, was aging and obviously on his way out, leaving behind his untested son. The point of my original article was to warn of a possible implosion and call for the international community to be ready to help Seoul pick up the pieces.
To the surprise of many observers including myself, Kim Jong-il seems to have inherited some of his father's remarkable talent for political survival, despite economic hardship and diplomatic isolation. At the same time, the United States has found its own actions unfettered by fears of an Armageddon-like exchange with Moscow, and has embarked on increasingly brazen military adventures in countries that it could never have attacked during the Cold War-Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq again. The idea in of an American attack on North Korea is still a nightmare for those living within what would become the war zone-including Seoul and potentially Tokyo-but seemed to be a daydream for some policy makers in the Bush administration. It was in this context that I urged Japan to embark on negotiations with Pyongyang that could reduce tensions and help eliminated pretexts for military action, and I was greatly encouraged a couple of months later when Prime Minister Koizumi proved to be of similar mind.
Given my history of cooperation with the anti-Kim Il-sung movement among North Korean residents in Japan, it is quite disheartening for me to look at the official organ of the North Korean Worker's party, the Rodong Shinmun newspaper, and have to admit the validity of many of the points they made in announcing that they were withdrawing indefinitely from the six-party talks and would maintain a nuclear deterrent. Whether or not Pyongyang's efforts at building a workable nuclear devise have been successful is unknown, but its missile program has had some well observed successes, and the Japanese have ample cause for alarm at being used as a proxy for the United States should Pyongyang feel the need to unleash this "deterrent."
The Japanese started viewing North Korea as their most serious military threat as soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Recently, Japanese newspapers are full of articles about North Korea, and opinion polls are showing increasing hostility towards Pyongyang among the Japanese public.
Japan's efforts to engage North Korea in such a way as to reduce this threat have been hampered by a number of historical bi-lateral issues that are separate or only indirectly related to the larger framework of current world geopolitics. These include Japan's history as Korea's colonial master, the problems faced by the Korean minority in Japan and the Japanese minority in North Korea, the kidnapping of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, and both country's nuclear, missile, and military potentials. In an attempt to achieve a breakthrough, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang in September 2002 and again in May 2004. These trips led to progress on some issues yet failed to achieve the goal of normalizing diplomatic relations.