European Press Divided on Koizumi's Trip to North Korea
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
In the aftermath of the historic summit between Japan and North Korea, major European media sources are divided as to whether Prime Minister Koizumi's initiative to meet with Kim Jong Il was a good move or not. The point of departure relates to diverging views on the principle of whether democratic countries and their leaders should negotiate and make concessions with oppressive dictators such as Mr. Kim.
The EU has "hailed" Japan's attempts at seeking reconciliation with North Korea. On 18 September, the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, stated that, "this will help prompt stability in North East Asia" (AP). The EU's Foreign and Security Affairs Chief, Javier Solana, also praised the talks by declaring that Koizumi's visit would "increase the openness of the North Korean government to dialogue" (AP). El Pais and The Times agree with this official standpoint. However, other leading European dailies such as The Independent, The Financial Times, The BBC and The International Herald Tribune did not.
Caroline Gluck of The Times called North Korea's position during the talks a "remarkable turn about" with the North finally admitting that it kidnapped 11 Japanese citizens during the 1970's and 80's. She voiced support for this development indicating that this "raised hopes that the impoverished communist country might at last be emerging from its self-imposed isolation" (18 September). As proof Gluck highlighted Kim's promise to extend the moratorium on missile tests indefinitely, his agreement to admit IAEA inspections and to begin talks to establish diplomatic relations with Japan. Spain's El Pais echoed this sentiment stating that Koizumi made great gains by reporting that he "not only achieved an apology (for the abductions) but also important concessions in terms of security" (18 September). Overall, El Pais categorized the talks as an "event that could reduce regional tensions and prepare the way for a dialogue with the United States".
Other European newspapers had a different take on the meeting. Although The Independent, The Financial Times and The BBC all acknowledged that the summit represented a "break through" (Mariko Sanchata, The Financial Times, 17 September), they warned Japan about the consequences of being too friendly with the pariah state. Before the talks took place, David Pilling of the Financial Times had alerted his readers that emotions were so high in Japan that, "public opinion would not tolerate any concessions to Pyongyang without some progress on the issue [of abductions]" (15 September). Afterwards, Pilling highlighted the critical views held by the relatives of those kidnapped and the Japanese public at large towards Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs which for years refused to pursue the issue and continued to extend aid to North Korea (17 September). While Pilling commended Koizumi for his "diplomatic skills" with Kim he warned that these skills were "now needed more than ever back home in Japan" in order to convince the public that he would not go soft on Pyongyang. The BBC was equally skeptical of how this would turn out. Despite recognizing Kim's admission to the abductions as a "stunning confession" Charles Scanlon characterized the dictator's concessions as "minimal steps" which were insufficient both for the US and the Japanese public. He told his readers back home that, "Koizumi will be severely criticized if he offers aid to the North". He went on to say that, "relatives of abductees are demanding that Japan give nothing away" (17 September). Raymond Whitaker of The Independent went along with this analysis stating that, "Mr. Koizumi, who agreed to provide aid possibly totaling 6.5 billion pounds and to resume talks with Pyongyang, could face a domestic backlash" (18 September)
The harshest criticism of all came from Professor Robyn Lim's (Nanzan University) article in The International Herald Tribune (While some could argue that this is not a European paper, its tie-up with a large number of major European papers gives it a wide readership on the continent). In his column, Lim did not hesitate to criticize Koizumi's trip as "an elementary mistake" (17 September). He lamented the talks claiming that, "it is astounding that despite the track record of Kim Jong Il, so many democratic leaders remain willing to give him the benefit of the doubt". Lim denounced the Japanese Prime Minister of "giving Pyongyang a new opportunity to ensure the survival of its odious regime" and concluded his article by stating that "Koizumi is breaking every rule in the manual of how to deal with dictators".
The issue is by no means a clear-cut matter. As was indicated above, the official EU policy is one that supports dialogue through a policy of "constructive engagement". Nevertheless, many in the European media are skeptical about whether Koizumi will insist on critical issues such as human rights and weapons of mass destruction even if it means that no immediate break through is in sight. There is a certain tendency in a number of European dailies that Koizumi is out for personal benefit aimed at garnering both public and governmental support for the upcoming cabinet reshuffle. However, if Koizumi and his team of negotiators continue to press the North on these key aspects before any aid is committed, the view from Europe will likely be overwhelmingly favorable.
- Raymond Whitaker, "North Korea finally admits stealing Japanese children", The Independent, 18 September, 2002
- Caroline Gluck, "North Korea admits kidnap plot", The Times, 18 September 2002
- "EU hails Japan, North Korea for seeking reconciliation after decades of strained ties", The Associated Press, 18 September, 2002
- "North Korea admits that it abducted Japanese to teach its spies the language", El Pais, 18 September, 2002
- Mariko Sanchanta, "North Korea apologizes to Japan for kidnappings", The Financial Times, 17 September 2002
- David Pilling, "Koizumi tread on fine line in North Korea", The Financial Times, 15 September 2002
- David Pilling, "Tears and joy over missing relatives", The Financial Times, 17 September 2002
- Robyn Lim, "Koizumi gambles with a dictator", The International Herald Tribune, 17 September 2002