Happy Birthday Kim Jong Il


Last Saturday Tadotoshi Akiba sent a letter to Kim Jong Il in North Korea. In it he expressed his fear and his resentment about their announcement that they possessed nuclear weapons. Tadatoshi san is the Mayor of Hiroshima.

Tadotoshi Aikba’s parents endured the nuclear blast that ended the Second World War. It is perhaps understandable that the people of Hiroshima, some who still remember the rain turned black in the bomb’s aftermath, fear the repercussions of North Korea’s atomic boast.

As you would expect, in a nation that is so close to North Korea, Japan’s news bulletins carried snippets of ordinary people expressing their alarm. Yet at the political level the Japanese are treading very carefully indeed.

Japan’s relationship with North Korea is a complex one. The region’s richest nation, Japan is the North’s third biggest trading partner behind China and South Korea. The relationship is worth over 27.2 billion yen, nearly $US250 million annually.

The North sends its rust-bucket ships to Japan laden with seafood and fish bound for Tokyo’s famous Tsukji fish market – the world’s largest. The ships return full to gunnels with basic consumer goods like heaters, fridges, and even items regarded as luxuries like bicycles. However most of Korea’s population never see these imports as the majority of the cargo finds its way into the homes of DPRK officials.

Sensing there were more trade dollars to be had, Japan’s Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi signed the Pyongyang Declaration in September 2002. It was hoped that opening the door to establishing formal diplomatic ties with North Korea would have mutually beneficial economic advantages.

It was partly Japan’s attempt to bring North Korea in from the cold that led to the release of the ‘lost ones’ – the Japanese children abducted from beaches along western Japan in the 70s and 80s. Four of these abductees were released in 2002 after the Declaration had been signed. However, what was supposed to be a measure of the goodwill between the nations quickly turned sour as the Japanese claimed there were dozens more still missing. Korea’s unwillingness to account for the lost ones incensed many in Japan.

Attempting to smooth over the many inconsistencies in the stories about the missing children, the North recently returned what they claimed were the cremated remains of a thirteen-year old child abducted in 1977. However, subsequent DNA tests proved that the remains were not those promised. Koizumi came under enormous pressure to impose economic sanctions, a move he was reluctant to undertake given the subtext to all of these manoeuvrings. Japan needed to know how far North Korea had progressed toward attaining full nuclear weapon capability.

A political compromise was reached wherein legislation was passed that imposes a requirement for all shipping to have insurance when entering Japanese ports. It was a softer option than sanctions and made no specific mention of North Korea. But the undertone was explicit. The legislation due to come in to force in a few weeks on 1 March will effectively choke the North. None of their ships have insurance and they will be unable to dock at Japanese ports.

This and the unresolved ‘abduction issue’ were quoted directly in last Friday’s statement from North Korea in which they claimed Japan’s hostility toward the ruling DPRK was also a factor is their decision to not return to the six-nation talks they pulled out of last year.

Speaking from Japan’s north city of Sapporo where he was attending the city’s Winter Festival – an annual event in Japan – Koizumi tried his best to downplay the North Korean announcement. He made all the appropriate noises about persuading the North to return to the six-nation talks but his assurances seemed to ring hollow.

Perhaps of more use to Koizumi will be the start of high-level foreign and defence policy talks between Japan and the US scheduled for 19 February. Japan will be looking for regional security assurances from the US and a softening of the language being used by the likes of Rumsfeld, Cheney and new Secretary of State Condolezza Rice. For the US, their number one priority is to ease Japan’s concerns about North Korea’s capabilities and remind them of their responsibilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, knowing full well Japan has the technology to manufacture its own atomic arsenal.

China waded in late but they have stated they’re prepared to bring their considerable influence to bear on North Korea to resolve the impasse, particularly as they have the most to lose from an unstable region. China supplies most of the North’s oil and over half of the country’s food. The effect of China allowing UN endorsed sanctions would be catastrophic given that North Korea already relies heavily on aid to feed its twenty-two million people.

Could it all be a tremendous bluff? Possibly. John Howard’s comments that the North was exaggerating its capability have been reported widely both in Japan and in the US. This is not a bluff Japan is willing to call and they have urged the other nations in the six-nation talks to take a more conciliatory approach to get North Korea back to the table.

Perhaps this more conciliatory almost respectful approach that Japan is moving toward is what North Korea wanted all along. Perhaps they wanted to send a message to the US and Japan that they should tread with care in dealing with North Korea. They do not at their peril. It’s hard to think of any other reason for their announcement – perhaps Kim Jong Il should have consulted China before announcing to the world that the North had nuclear weapons.

Today is Kim Jong Il’s birthday and having sent the world’s leaders into a tail spin last Friday, with his surprise announcement, it’d be a pretty good bet that just 1200 kilometres across the Sea of Japan he’ll be whooping it up. I doubt that Junichiro Koizumi will be wishing him well.

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