Concessions tied to U.S.-North Korea stalemate

In just one day of negotiations, North Korea agreed to lengthen the temporary homecoming of five abducted Japanese nationals and promised to allow a visit to Japan by their children soon, Japanese sources said Thursday.

The quick concession Tuesday was probably due to last week’s high-level talks between North Korea and the United States ending in a virtual stalemate, combined with the firm insistence by Tokyo that the abductees and their children visit Japan in the near future, the sources said.

North Korea agreed Monday to allow the five to return to Japan for one week starting Oct. 15, but Japan successfully pressed to extend the period of stay by a week and to secure a promise that their children would also be allowed to come to Japan, the sources said.

When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea on Sept. 17 for talks with leader Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang initially expressed readiness to facilitate the return home of the surviving abductees, all taken in 1978, but said that such a trip would be realized only if the abductees wished to go.

The five told a Japanese government fact-finding mission to Pyongyang last week they wanted to see their families, but none expressly said they wanted to go back to Japan, instead asking the families to come visit them.

But Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, in charge of the abduction issue, decided to demand specifically that the five and their children be brought to Japan as soon as possible, regardless of their wishes.

“Under such a peculiar regime (as North Korea), it is questionable how much one’s true free will is guaranteed,” a government source explained.

The relatives of the abductees had asked Koizumi on Sept. 27 to make the victims return within a month and insisted the government step up efforts to confirm information about the abductees on the premise they are all alive.

A Japanese mission spent four days in Pyongyang through Oct. 1 investigating the facts surrounding North Korea’s claims that five of the 13 Japanese it abducted are living in the North Korean capital and that the other eight have died. The mission confirmed the identities of the survivors but could not gather enough evidence to confirm any deaths.

Shortly after the mission returned, the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau chief Hitoshi Tanaka proposed to North Korea that the five surviving abductees visit Japan, the sources said.

Around the same time, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who visited Pyongyang from Oct. 3 to Oct. 5, urged North Korea, at Japan’s request, to settle the abduction issue.

As for the overall U.S.-North Korea meeting, it appears to have ended up just as Kelly had predicted during his stopover in Tokyo before heading to the North — with little progress made.

“The talks were a clash of opinions over basic principles,” another source with the government said.

North Korea’s initial response to Tanaka to allow the five abductees to return to Japan came a day after Kelly stopped in Tokyo on Sunday on his way back to Washington.

At that time, Pyongyang said the abductees could stay in Japan one week and that it would “make efforts” to realize an early visit to Japan by the abductees’ children, the sources said.

Abe’s immediate reaction upon hearing the response was: “We cannot accept that. One week is not enough. ‘Making efforts’ is not enough,” according to the sources. He instructed Tanaka to ask for an extended stay and to push for a near-term visit by the children.

Apparently distraught by dim prospects for its future ties with Washington, Pyongyang was quick to react to Japan’s demands, telling Tanaka on Tuesday morning that the abductees can stay in Japan for two weeks or so and that it will allow another homecoming with their children soon, the sources said.

Abe informed relatives of the five Wednesday that the two couples — Yasushi Chimura and Fukie Hamamoto, and Kaoru Hasuike and Yukiko Okudo — and one woman, Hitomi Soga, will begin their visit to Japan next Tuesday.