Fri, Oct 06, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: N Korean crisis in Abe's hands

With his threat to test a nuclear weapon, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il appears to have accomplished something that diplomacy never could: He has convinced Japan, China, South Korea and the US to read from the same page.

The message is clear: A North Korean nuclear test would be intolerable to the international community.

US officials were blunt.

"[North Korea] can have a future or it can have these weapons, it cannot have both," said US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, later adding: "We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea, we are not going to accept it."

Even Beijing, which helped to create this crisis by providing aid to the Kim regime and assistance with its weapons programs, is starting to sound as concerned as Washington.

"No one is going to protect" Pyongyang if it proceeds with a test, Chinese UN Ambassador Wang Guangya (王光亞) said yesterday.

"I think if North Koreans do have the nuclear test, I think that they have to realize that they will face serious consequences," he said.

Meanwhile, Japan is leading a push to get the UN Security Council to issue a warning to Pyongyang, and after some eleventh-hour haggling with China, it looks as though Tokyo will succeed.

Sharp words may not be enough to defuse this crisis, but close cooperation between the regional powers will force Pyongyang to negotiate. The largest barrier to that cooperation thus far has been Japan's icy relations with its neighbors.

Many issues have sidelined the countries taking part in the six-party talks, but the most contentious are almost always between Japan and its neighbors, whether it was former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni shrine or territorial disputes over barren rocks in the middle of the ocean.

Unlike his predecessor, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a clean slate, although the international media seem to have already decided that he is "militant," and regularly describes him in this manner. But given that Abe's first significant gesture as prime minister was to seek rapprochement with Beijing and Seoul, it is fair to question the accuracy of that description.

What really matters, of course, is not Abe's ideological predilection, but his ability to perceive threats to his country and to determine the best way to deal with those threats. At present, the biggest threat is North Korea, and Japan cannot solve the problem that Pyongyang poses on its own.

That Abe is starting off his premiership with a crisis of this magnitude will give the world a quick insight into his character and his leadership abilities. Abe is better suited to deal with this issue than his predecessor, who had too much of a history of mistrust with his neighbors to conduct personal shuttle diplomacy.

Koizumi will always be remembered as the political reformer who pushed Japan down the path of normalcy in its domestic, economic, military and foreign affairs. But he will also be remembered for presiding over a period of increased regional tensions because of his callous touch when it came to diplomacy.

Abe has a chance to be remembered as the prime minister who not only continued Japan's reforms, but who also helped usher in a new era of trust and cooperation with his neighbors.

The North Korean nuclear crisis is his first chance to show he can do both. The question now is: How will Shinzo Abe be remembered?

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