Negotiators clash as old disputes haunt Tokyo-Pyongyang discussions

Kyodo

Japan and North Korea have clashed here over old disputes at the outset of senior-level negotiations on establishing diplomatic ties.

During the first day of the talks Wednesday, North Korean negotiators threatened to walk out of the bilateral talks unless “past problems” were addressed.

The negotiations are scheduled to resume today. Courtesy visits to high-level officials, including First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, are scheduled for the same day.

The resumption of the talks, which collapsed in 1992, is seen as a landmark in possible reconciliation, but it is also clear that the road ahead is rough.

Haunting the two countries are two major stumbling blocks left over from the earlier talks — the alleged abduction of at least 10 Japanese by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s and compensation for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

“We must address the past problems as the top priority . . . or else we see no reasonable grounds for continuing the talks and will seek other ways,” Ambassador Jong Thae Hwa, who heads the North Korean side, told a press conference after the meeting.

Jong said the two sides must first discuss a package of four problems involving Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.

North Korea wants an official written apology from Japan, compensation to satisfy North Koreans and repair damaged cultural heritage, and legal assurances that Koreans living in Japan as permanent residents will be reimbursed for losses.

Jong also flatly denied that North Korean agents ever abducted any Japanese.

At the start of the talks, Jong “called for settlement of the past and sought an apology and compensation” as the condition for normalizing ties, according to a Japanese official.

Kojiro Takano, who heads the Japanese delegation as ambassador in charge of the two-day talks, reiterated that Japan will refuse to pay compensation.

He cited the absence of reasonable grounds for North Korea’s insistence on receiving wartime compensation because Japan and Korea were not at war in colonial times. He also denied that Japan is responsible for the division of the peninsula, the official said.

But Takano repeated a 1995 statement issued by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressing “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the suffering and damage inflicted by Japan on Asian and other nations during World War II and during its colonial rule, the official said.

During a meeting with the press later in the day, however, Jong said North Korea wants Japan to issue a “legally binding official statement of apology” by its leader, adding that Murayama’s statement “is insufficient.”

In return, during the meeting Takano urged North Korea to take “appropriate” measures over the alleged abductions, called for restraint on nuclear and missile development, and called for a positive response to recent South Korean overtures aimed at beginning inter-Korean dialogue, the official said.

Takano also called for “appropriate measures” on the abductions, reiterating Japan’s resolution that this is unavoidable if Japan is to normalize ties, the official said.