Sankei Shimbun's front cover this morning proclaimed, in large print, "Shock to the Japanese nation."
The headline, of course, referred to President Bush's announcement Thursday that, in keeping with the principle of "action for action," the Bush administration will (1) lift "the provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act with respect to North Korea" and (2) inform Congress of its intent "to rescind North Korea's designation as a state sponsor of terror in 45 days."
Is there a set of criteria to determine when an event counts as a shock to the Japanese people?
This has been a shock more than a year in the making. As early as May of last year, there were rumors that the US government was prepared to link the "terror sponsor" designation to the nuclear issue, instead of the abductions issue (i.e., a "terrorism" issue). While the rumors last May were subsequently denied, the possibility had been broached that the US would reward North Korea for progress in nuclear negotiations with removal from the list. Japan has had a year to either dissuade the US from doing so — as recently as February, conservatives were prepared to do a victory dance over the carcass of the six-party talks — or to shift its position accordingly in preparation for a move by the US.
Is a crisis still a crisis if it is wholly predictable well in advance?
The response of each of the actors was equally predictable. The abductee families responded with anger and disbelief. Prime Minister Fukuda emphasized that US-Japan cooperation on the abductions issue and North Korea policy more generally will be unaffected by the announcement. The response in the Japanese political system was equally predictable. Yamasaki Taku's study group for normalization with North Korea welcomed the step; Hiranuma Takeo's abductee problem study group warned about cracks in the alliance; Ozawa Ichiro said the US was ignoring Japan; and unspecified young LDP Diet members warned that if the delisting proceeds without North Korea taking appropriate actions, Mr. Fukuda's popularity will suffer yet another blow.
As I argued previously, this is unquestionably a positive step, even if the report filed by North Korea left out information related to missile production, nuclear testing sites, the uranium refinement program, or possible proliferation activities. It was unreasonable to expect that the process would wrap up in one fell swoop, with North Korea handing over information about all of its dubious activities and the US responding by rushing to full diplomatic recognition. This is a complicated dance, now moving forward, now back, now standing still. Secretary Hill and the State Department more generally deserve credit for their perseverance, not just in the face of North Korean intransigence, but also sniping from Japan (the "Kim Jong Hill" moniker, for example) and from within the Bush administration.
This process is not about full disarmament, but buying time, finding a way to reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula, freeze North Korea's nuclear programs as much as possible (and prevent proliferation), and possibly get North Korea to open its door to the world ever so slightly. Yes, there is also the possibility — based on North Korea's behavior in the past — that North Korea will not keep its end of the bargain. But lacking good alternatives (sanctions are useless as long as China opts out, war is extremely unlikely both because of the US position in Iraq and because of the immorality of America's launching a war in which South Korea would bear the brunt of the costs) negotiation is the last bad option. North Korea doesn't follow through? Fine, then it doesn't receive any of the benefits of negotiating with the US. North Korea delivers something concrete? Okay, the US responds by lifting one of its many sanctions on North Korea.
As President Bush said Thursday, "North Korea will remain one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world. The sanctions that North Korea faces for its human rights violations, its nuclear test in 2006, and its weapons proliferation will all stay in effect. And all United Nations Security Council sanctions will stay in effect as well."
In short, North Korea is only slight less of a pariah today than it was yesterday. But the process will move forward.
So I second Steve Clemons's congratulations to Christopher Hill, John Negroponte, Condoleezza Rice, the former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns and his successor William Burns. They have made the best of a bad situation, even if their opponents in Japan and the US will not pay them the slightest compliment for their deft work.
UPDATE: In this post, Sam Roggeveen at The Interpreter asks a question I meant to ask.
"...What I'm not seeing from the critics is a plausible alternative plan. Nobody is suggesting military action to disarm North Korea, because given the geography, Pyongyang effectively holds the city of Seoul hostage. Isolating the regime also seems to have done very little good.
"And what harm can be done by this approach? Yes, North Korea gains economic aid and a sense of legitimacy from being brought out of its pariah status, but those are favours that can easily be stopped or revoked.
"To paint these negotiations as if the US is being held over a barrel by the crafty Stalinists in Pyongyang is at best a partial reading. The US and its negotiating partners have a lot of what North Korea wants — wealth. That remains an important point of leverage."
UPDATE TWO: It seems that Machimura Nobutaka, in a phone conversation with Stephen Hadley, US national security adviser, informed Mr. Hadley that the Japanese people were "shocked" by the US decision.
Again, assuming that it's true that the Japanese people are shocked — and having seen no evidence showing how they're shocked, I'm not accepting this claim at face value — why didn't the Japanese government do more to prepare them for the US decision, given that the US has advertised its willingness to remove North Korea from the list for nearly a year now? The Fukuda government will try to shift as much blame to the US as possible, but will anyone buy it? The conservatives certainly won't: they'll be happy to blame both the US and the Fukuda government.