WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- Call it a "Koizumi Shock." Japan's brilliant, maverick prime minister has pulled off Tokyo's greatest diplomatic coup in decades. At one stroke he has defused the greatest physical threat facing the Japanese people: the threat of an attack by
North Korea using weapons of mass destruction.
And he did so alone -- without the help or support of the U.S. government.
On Wednesday, Junichiro Koizumi capped his visit to Pyongyang, arguably the world's most isolated capital, with an agreement to normalize relations between Japan and North Korea. The North's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, went even further, pledging unilaterally to stop testing his ballistic missiles.
He even asked Koizumi to tell President George W. Bush that Kim wanted to start talking to him.
Why did Kim do it? And how did Koizumi pull it off?
First, Koizumi has been vastly underestimated both at home and abroad. After his upstart, dark horse popular victory in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party's primaries in spring 2001, his honeymoon with the Japanese people turned sour as he failed to turn around Japan's recession-plagued economy as he had hoped.
But as we noted in a United Press International Analysis a year and a half ago, Koizumi was going to be different, especially in foreign policy, from almost all the cautious, compromise prime ministers Japan has had over the past 40 years.
And, as we also predicted, even when he appeared to be banging alarming nationalist drums to bolster domestic support, his real plans aimed at defusing tensions with Japan's immediate neighbors North Korea and China, not exacerbating them.
The deal with North Korea fulfills those strategic and domestic political aims. It significantly reduces, and makes significant moves towards removing, the threat of any attack on Japan by North Korea. It will also be a welcome sign to China that Japan is prepared to take unilateral diplomatic action to further its own interests and will not stay in America's pocket, as China and the United States head towards a collision course over Taiwan.
Second, Kim showed, as he has shown often before, that he may be reclusive and even paranoid. But he is the real ruler of North Korea and is neither stupid nor mad.
The North Koreans appear to be genuinely alarmed that the United States, under Bush's leadership, has finally moved into the
go-it-alone, unilateralist "cowboy" behavior it has so often been -- falsely -- accused of by its enemies and jealous critics around the world.
North Korea was named by President Bush -- along with Iraq and Iran -- as part of a global "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address at the beginning of this year. Bush now appears to be methodically moving to take out Iraq and its leader, President Saddam Hussein.
Iran, with 80 million people, may be too big to take on in the same way militarily. But perhaps North Korea, with about 20 million people -- a population comparable to Iraq's --is not.
It is indeed striking that Koizumi returns home from Pyongyang armed not only with an agreement that will prove highly popular to the Japanese people, but also with a request Kim asked him to convey to Washington. The North Korean leader told Koizumi to tell Bush that the "door is open for dialogue." He even offered a key concession that Republican and Democratic administrations have sought in vain from his country -- an open-ended moratorium on tested ballistic missiles.
The moratorium offer is exceptionally striking. U.S. negotiators for decades have found getting even reciprocal concessions out of North Korea like getting blood out of a stone. Republican critics of former President Bill Clinton's policy of engaging the North argued that even agreements Pyongyang signed, it really intended to ignore and break.
But testing ballistic missiles is one of the most easily verifiable of all commitments. Everyone monitoring the Sea of Japan can tell immediately on his radar screen if it is being broken.
Of course, cynics may well argue -- and with good reason -- that the moratorium offer merely signifies that the North Koreans are now so confident that their missiles really work that they do not have to bother testing them any longer. Or that they may be getting them tested in Iran, or Pakistan, or even China, quite enough already.
But the fact remains that the North Koreans have announced the moratorium. And they have offered the dialogue with Washington. And there is no doubt that these moves will be welcomed, not only in Tokyo, but also in America's other key ally in Northeast Asia, South Korea.
When Bush, in a clearly deliberate echo of President Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, called on North Korea to tear down its Demilitarized Zone on his visit to the peninsula, South Korean leaders and senior officials were silent but privately appalled.
Their greatest fear has long been that the isolated, paranoid North Koreans would bolt from South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine" policy of gradually building ties and warming relations. And they feared that Bush was playing into the hands of Pyongyang's most extreme hard-liners.
Now, in a supreme irony, it was Koizumi, whom the South Koreans feared would revive the Japanese nationalism that enslaved them in colonialism for half a century, who played a key role in wooing the North Koreans back to the paths of engagement and mutually predictable and therefore reassuring behavior.
For South Korea, Japan and the long-established U.S. goals of seeking to reduce tensions and avoid the outbreak of any major war in Northeast Asia, the fruits of Koizumi's historic trip to Pyongyang are therefore all welcome. But the Bush administration may not see it that way.
This is, first, because, quite simply, Bush and his dominant hawks have an all-too-well established reflex habit of looking gift horses in the mouth and despising them. Second, they appear to far prefer the risks of direct confrontation with hostile states to the less emotionally satisfying but also far less dangerous paths of engaging them. Third, agreeing to a path of trying to defuse tensions with North Korea might well give political ammunition to critics of the administration's deliberate collision course policy towards Iraq.
But the Bush Hawks -- or "Chicken Hawks," as critics who note that none of them ever saw active combat service have taken to calling them -- should ponder hard and long on another lesson from Koizumi's diplomatic achievement. This is, that it was pulled off without any involvement from them.
Koizumi's Japan is manifestly not a warlike or expansionist Japan. But it is certainly a Japan capable of acting in its own interests without staying dependent on Bush's approval.
And the more Bush and his hawks pursue a go-it-alone policy against others, the more they can expect others to go it alone without reference to them.