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Expectations for Japan-North Korea talks vary


TOKYO -- As Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi prepares to travel to North Korea on Tuesday for the first summit meeting between the countries, speculation is rife here about what to expect from a meeting between Japan's iconoclastic leader and Asia's least-predictable despot.

Some analysts have predicted that Koizumi might bring back some of the 11 Japanese citizens who are believed to have been kidnapped by North Korea, some of whom have been missing since the 1970s.

Other reports have gone further, suggesting that the meeting might produce a tension-easing extension of North Korea's moratorium on missile tests and even an announcement that inspectors are welcome to certify that North Korea is not producing nuclear weapons.

For Koizumi, whose 17 months in office have been lacking in significant domestic achievements, his North Korea trip looms as a critical gamble on foreign policy that could solidify or break his hold on office.

For Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, normalization with Japan after 54 years without diplomatic relations, might seem equally vital. Kim needs foreign capital, and signs suggest he is eager to soften attitudes in Washington, where President Bush has named North Korea part of an "axis of evil."

This apparent confluence of interests has led many to predict diplomatic success.

"If Koizumi can achieve a breakthrough with North Korea, his political reputation will receive a huge boost," said Noriyuki Suzuki, a Tokyo journalist and an analyst of North Korean affairs. "At the same time, the North Koreans are eager for money and for better relations with their neighbors. The timing is good because they are worried about having the hostility of the United States focused on them after Iraq."

For weeks, the Japanese government has defined success almost solely in terms of obtaining the cooperation of the North Koreans in accounting for -- and ideally returning -- its 11 missing citizens.

The fate of the people thought to have been abducted has come to overshadow traditionally weightier matters of national security, such as North Korea's suspected nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs.

Arguably, Japan has more reason to worry about such matters than any other country except South Korea, given that North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile through Japanese airspace in 1998. Bilateral security issues, however, have been given little public attention.

North Korea, meanwhile, has signaled its interest in resolving what are often referred to as "historical questions," which means obtaining a public Japanese apology and financial compensation for abuses committed by Japan during 35 years of colonial rule, which ended in 1945.

South Korea received $500 million from Japan when the countries normalized relations in 1965, and during bilateral discussions two years ago, North Korea reportedly demanded a payment of $13 billion. Although the higher sum can be explained in large part by inflation, it was rejected at the time by Tokyo, and, in light of Japan's economic malaise, seems even less likely to be accepted now.

Some analysts set a low bar for Koizumi, saying that the Japanese public is in no mood to pay reparations and will be satisfied with a cordial meeting that leaves hard work on concrete issues for later.

"Koizumi has very little experience in diplomacy, and that is why this is such a gamble," said Jun Iio, a political scientist at the National Graduate Institute for Political Studies. "But if he understands his own weakness, he will be OK. His big achievement will simply be to meet Kim Jong Il. He shouldn't try to do too much more than this."

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