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Editorial: Japan needs to push for urgent diplomatic solution to N. Korea issue

North Korea on Aug. 29 launched a ballistic missile, which flew over Cape Erimo in Hokkaido before plunging into the Pacific Ocean.


The Japanese government issued an emergency “J-Alert” warning to 12 prefectures in northern and eastern Japan, forcing railway operators to temporarily suspend service on some lines in those areas, including Shinkansen bullet train lines.


People must have been unsettled by the warning, with many facing difficulties getting to work. If the missile launch had failed, it could have caused damage to parts of Japan.


This was the fifth time that a North Korean missile flew over the Japanese archipelago. In the past, North Korea had indicated in advance that it would launch what it called “rockets,” apart from its first missile launch in 1998. This time, however, North Korea launched a missile without prior warning. The missile could have caused an accident involving aircraft or ships.


Moreover, the latest launch came as Pyongyang was threatening to fire missiles in the direction of the U.S. territory of Guam.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned North Korea’s latest missile launch, saying, “It was an unprecedentedly serious and grave threat.” North Korea’s provocative act is absolutely unacceptable.


There are news reports that North Korea is preparing to conduct another nuclear test. The country went ahead with its fifth such test on Sept. 9, 2016 — the country’s national foundation day.


One cannot help but wonder how the world should deal with North Korea, which has repeatedly launched missiles and conducted nuclear tests in defiance of warnings from the international community.


North Korea, which isolated itself from the international community during the Cold War, is believed to be trying to obtain the United States’ guarantee that it will allow for North Korea’s sovereignty and the continued existence of the regime.


Tensions heightened worldwide after North Korea threatened in 1993 to break away from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The crisis appeared to have been averted in 1994 when the United States and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear weapons development in return for Washington providing the country with light-water nuclear reactors.


In 2002, however, North Korea reactivated its nuclear facilities. Moreover, it came to light that the country was planning the development of nuclear arms using highly enriched uranium. Pyongyang declared in 2003 that it was withdrawing from the NPT.


During six-party talks involving Japan, the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and North Korea, it was agreed that North Korea would abandon its nuclear program in exchange for energy assistance. However, North Korea has repeatedly conducted nuclear tests and launched ballistic missiles since it went through with a nuclear test in 2006.


North Korea has deliberately heightened tensions in the international community, drawn the United States and other countries into dialogue with it and further heightened tensions after receiving assistance. There is no denying that the United States has been at the mercy of North Korea, underestimating the regime and assuming it would collapse sooner or later.


North Korea is now believed to be capable of loading nuclear weapons onto warheads after it succeeded in test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile.


Based on these developments, the U.S. government of President Donald Trump has characterized past U.S. policy toward North Korea as a failure and has hinted at the possibility of using a military option, which past U.S. administrations had avoided.


However, if an armed conflict were to break out on the Korean Peninsula, it is estimated that at least 1 million people would die in South Korea, which is projected to sustain the most serious damage, and U.S. forces in South Korea would also suffer. Northeast Asia as a whole would become embroiled in war.


Settling the matter through war is not and should not be an option, and the international community has no choice but to seek a diplomatic solution.


The United States is urging China to put pressure on North Korea. Beijing, for its part, insists that dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang is indispensable. Indeed, North Korea regards only the United States as a negotiating partner.


There are calls within the United States urging that North Korea be allowed to possess nuclear weapons and that arms reduction talks be launched in a bid to swiftly alleviate tensions. Even if consultations between the United States and North Korea are necessary to settle the matter, Japan cannot abide North Korea as it presently stands.


First and foremost, countries in the region that have vested interests in the North Korean issue should discuss the matter.


By taking advantage of the framework of the six-party talks, five of the countries excluding North Korea should hold talks to coordinate their views on how to persuade Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons development.


China cannot tolerate North Korea’s possession of nuclear arms or war breaking out in a neighboring country. Meanwhile, Russia cannot stay indifferent to the security landscape in Northeast Asia.


Japan, which directly faces the intensifying threat posed by North Korea, should take the initiative in such five-party talks.


It is important for Japan and the United States to strengthen their alliance in responding to the North Korean situation, but China has expressed grave concerns that if thorough sanctions, including an oil embargo, were to be imposed on North Korea, it could cause the North Korean regime to collapse.


U.S. administration officials such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are pursuing a negotiated settlement with North Korea instead of seeking to change the North Korean regime. It is obviously possible for the United States to seek common ground with China, avoid a military option and promote a diplomatic settlement.


Washington and Pyongyang should then hold pragmatic talks. These two countries could seek to upgrade the Korean Armistice Agreement, a cease-fire accord from the Korean War, to a peace pact, and envisage a security framework for all of Northeast Asia, including China and Russia.


This will be no easy task. However, Japan should devote its diplomatic resources to patiently working to settle the issue of North Korea’s missile and nuclear development.

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