JAPAN LEVELS THE FOOD WEAPON AT NORTH KOREA

JAPAN LEVELS THE FOOD WEAPON AT NORTH KOREA

U.S. diplomat William Perry has a policy of ''cautious realism'' regarding North Korea. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung is identified with his positive ''sunshine policy'' vis-a-vis Pyongyang.

It would be generous and accurate to characterize Japan's policy toward the regime of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party Kim Jong-il as ''darkness at noon.''While North Korea's Ri Myun-hoon, a towering presence in basketball at seven feet, nine inches, was taking part in friendly ''reunification'' matches in Seoul not long ago, U.S. diplomats were looking for ways to invite their North Korean counterparts to Washington.

At about the same time, Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono was saying that proceeding with food aid to North Korea - where at least 220,000 have starved since the mid-1990s - was premature.

The Japanese government thus put on hold an agreement between the Red Cross Societies of the two nations that had been signed several days earlier.

U.S. estimates, by the way, put the North's death toll at 2 million in the same period.

''It is necessary for us to comprehensively analyze North Korean reaction to the humanitarian issues Japan has presented, including the abduction of Japanese,'' Kono told a news conference after a Cabinet session.

Another meeting between the two governments on setting a framework for normalization talks was held at the same time as the Red Cross meetings.

Japanese delegates at the Red Cross meeting agreed to urge their government to resume food aid to North Korea ''as quickly as possible from a humanitarian viewpoint.''

The North Korean side promised to request a ''full-scale search'' for missing Japanese whom Tokyo believes were abducted by Pyongyang. In Japan's food-diplomacy handbook, the issue pivots on whether the Japanese in question were abducted or are just missing.

A point that it all keeps coming back to is this: Why has Japan been so persistently tough over the last 50 years toward North Korea?

And why does this abrasive treatment single out North Korea among all the nations of the world?

Some say the answers are wrapped up in resentments or emotional fallout from Tokyo's past colonial control of Korea; frictions within the Korean minority in Japan; a Liberal Democratic Party mind-set that includes going several steps beyond U.S. policies; and a desire to show up lingering socialist political threads in Japanese society.

Everyone knows that North Korea deserves extra scrutiny. But it is beginning to look as though some LDP elements are exerting a proprietary influence on Korean matters.

Over the horizon, we see the same stirrings of some Japanese politicians toward the future of Taiwan, another former possession of Japan. Some say it is a good thing; at least they are showing some interest in foreign affairs.

I'm the last person to be accused of lobbying for North Korea, but give me a break: Japan has diplomatic relations with 189 nations in the world. North Korea has been excluded from the list for 50 years, and only now are serious talks toward normalization getting past square one.

The Perry report is the work of a superior intellect. The U.S. diplomat has raised the carrot-and-stick strategy to a new level of respectability. The sunshine policy, given its origins, is remarkably optimistic.

Both approaches are more imaginative and sophisticated than Japan's crude food diplomacy.

It is sadly evident that much of the political foot-dragging on the Korean issue comes from Tokyo as well as from Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang.

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