Saturday, February 12, 2005

We Have the Bomb. Ho hum.

You might think that North Korea’s statement last week that “we have manufactured nuclear weapons for self defense” and was withdrawing from the six-party negotiations might have raised anxiety levels in nearby Japan. But you would not know it from the reaction here.

The Japan Times reported the latest development in a curious manner. The headline read: “Pyongyang’s nuclear move weakens threat of sanctions over abductions.” And the newspapers editors did not feel any need to comment on the North’s action. The paper’s lead editorial the following day discussed implications of the Palestine-Israel truce.

The coverage underscores the truth that the Japanese public is far more agitated about the fate of its nationals kidnapped in the 1970s than it is with North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. Of course, the latter has been a running story for more than a decade now, while the abduction issue is front and center.

For months Japanese have been roiled by the fate of one of those abductees, a young woman, a girl really, named Megumi Yokota. Ms Yokota was kidnapped in Japan in 1977 and taken to North Korea. She reportedly died (or committed suicide) in 1994.

In November her “remains” were turned over a visiting Japanese delegation. But when DNA tests were made on the remains, the results showed that they belonged to “a number of other people.” (The DNA tests were made possible because many Japanese preserve the umbilical cord of their new born children.)

North Korea’s government in 2002 acknowledged that some rogue elements had turned to kidnapping Japanese in order, it said, to help train spies in the Japanese language and culture. But that doesn’t really explain why Ms Yokota was nabbed returning home from badminton practice when she was only 13 years old.

Pyongyang maintains that the DNA tests were in error. Tokyo formally replied – on Feb. 10, the very day that North Korea made its nuclear announcement – that it stood by the tests. The remains were not those of Megumi Yokota.

Since then the Japanese government has been debating whether to impose economic sanctions on North Korea as perhaps the only way to force Pyongyang to explain once and for all the fate of the Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

These sanctions, such things as stopping Koreans living in Japan from sending remittances back to North Korea or limiting ships from making port calls, would be unilateral sanctions. They have nothing to do with possible U.N.- approved multilateral sanctions against North Korea’s weapons program.

It is not clear why suspension of the six-party negotiations (the parties are North and South Korea, Japan, China, the U.S. and Russia -- they are hosted by China.) would inhibit Japanese sanctions. One might think quite the reverse.

Tokyo has been restrained from imposing sanctions in part because the other parties to the negotiations, particularly the U.S., do not want to see the larger issue of eliminating nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula muddled by what they consider a fairly parochial matter.

Tokyo may settle for more subtle ways to punish Pyongyang without having to formally impose sanctions. For example, on March 1 a new law goes into effect requiring added nautical insurance against oil spills for ships making port calls. Few North Korean have such insurance.

The idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea is simply not shocking to many in the region as it appears elsewhere. After all, Pyongyang has been talking openly about its nuclear ambitions for several years.

On the other hand, most of it has been just that – words and speculation -- since North Korea has not yet exploded a bomb. If it were to do so that it would surely change attitudes fast, even in Japan. There is nothing like setting off an atomic bomb to get the world’s attention.

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