Tokyo-Pyongyang talks yield little, rescheduled

Japan and North Korea agreed Friday to hold a second round of high-level negotiations for establishing diplomatic ties in Tokyo in late May, but failed to make any tangible progress as the first two-day round reached its conclusion in Pyongyang.

“The two sides reaffirmed that they should continue the normalization negotiations, and agreed to hold the next . . . round in Tokyo in late May,” it was stated in a joint press statement issued at the close of the Pyongyang round.

This week’s round marked the resumption of the normalization talks between Japan and North Korea that collapsed in 1992.

The short one-page statement said that “sincere discussions” were realized during the first round “on various pending issues, by first focusing on the settlement of past issues in relation to achieving normalization.”

A Japanese official told reporters Friday’s 90-minute session focused on setting a schedule without restarting the heated debate that was entered into during the first-day session Wednesday.

The two nations agreed previously to hold the second round in Tokyo and the third possibly in Beijing, but they have not yet scheduled any dates.

An official said the two sides bickered somewhat over the wording of the press statement issued after the Pyongyang round.

The North Korean side stressed that the two nations should prioritize “the settlement of the past,” involving Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, the official said.

“The problem between the two nations is that we have not settled the past, and this can’t be discussed on the same grounds as other issues,” the official quoted Ambassador Jong Thae Hwa, the head of the North Korean side, as telling Japan’s chief negotiator, Kojiro Takano.

Ambassador Takano acknowledged “the need to settle the past” but reiterated the negotiations “will not progress if other pending issues are not covered,” including the alleged abduction of at least 10 Japanese by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Wednesday meeting can be taken as signal of a rough road ahead for the normalization talks. The two sides clashed over the abduction issue and compensation for the colonial rule, the same two disputes left unresolved after previous talks.

A Japanese source said Jong proposed at the Wednesday meeting that the two nations establish diplomatic ties soon after settling past problems, effectively setting aside other pending issues until after normalizing relations.

Takano rejected the proposal because it would mean postponing discussion of such priority issues as the abductions, the source said.

Speaking to reporters after the Wednesday session, Jong had even threatened to walk out of the talks if Japan refuses to accept North Korea’s demand to prioritize the resolution of the past.

Jong called for a package involving a legally binding written apology and compensation to satisfy North Korea, covering damaged and stolen cultural heritage, and an assurance of the legal status of Koreans living in Japan as permanent residents.

But Takano reiterated Wednesday that Japan rejects such compensation, and called for “appropriate measures” on the abduction issue, the Japanese official said.

In Tokyo on Friday, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono told reporters, “We can’t allow the abduction and other matters of interest to our nation to be shelved.”

On Wednesday, Takano also raised the issue of North Korea’s missile and nuclear development programs, and expressed concern over intrusions by spy ships and drug trafficking, the official said.

But the two sides Wednesday also demonstrated new attempts to sustain the talks, with North Korea proposing establishment of an expert-level subcommittee to deal with technical issues and Japan promising to consider the idea.

On Thursday, the two delegations took a one-day break, going on sightseeing excursions at scenic Mount Myohyang to build personal ties.

The Japanese delegation was scheduled to pay courtesy visits late Friday to First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju and Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of the Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium.

Takano is slated to hold a press conference after the visits. The delegation is to leave North Korea Saturday.

The previous round of talks on normalizing ties began in January 1991 but collapsed in November 1992 after eight rounds because Pyongyang rejected Tokyo’s request for information on a Japanese woman believed abducted by North Korean agents for the purpose of teaching spies the Japanese language and customs.