Tokyo, Pyongyang trade accusations as talks commence

KUALA LUMPUR — Japan and North Korea remained divided Tuesday on the key issues of abductions and nuclear weapons as they opened their first talks on normalizing diplomatic relations in two years, a Foreign Ministry official said.

The North Korean delegates ignored Japan’s calls to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear arms development program and accused Tokyo of “breaking its promise” over the homecoming arrangements for the Japanese abductees.

In the morning session on the first of two scheduled days of talks, Japan’s chief delegate, Katsunari Suzuki, told his North Korean counterpart Jong Thae Hwa that Pyongyang should cooperate with Tokyo on looking deeper into the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, the official said.

But Jong was quoted as saying the issue has been settled “in a broad context,” and the remaining details should be handled in future working-level talks rather than in the current session.

“I don’t know much about the abductions,” the official quoted Jong as saying.

Japan also urged North Korea to allow the children of the five surviving abductees who are now visiting Japan for the first time in 24 years to rejoin their parents as quickly as possible.

But Jong reportedly responded by accusing Japan of “breaking its promise” to return the abductees to Pyongyang after a period of about two weeks starting Oct. 15. Tokyo decided last week to have the abductees remain in Japan, possibly permanently.

“We are on a collision course on this issue,” the Japanese official said. “There was absolutely no agreement.”

Suzuki also urged North Korea to halt a uranium enrichment program Japan suspects is being used to develop nuclear weapons.

But Jong was quoted as saying the demand was “totally unacceptable.” The North Korean delegates insist that the root of the nuclear weapons issue is what it describes as a policy of antagonism by the United States, the official said.

Suzuki and Jong, the ambassadors in charge of the bilateral normalization talks, had similarly frustrating conversations over a working lunch, the official said.

Diplomatic niceties were not observed at the beginning of the talks, apparently because the two sides failed to work out the details of how to proceed in preparatory talks on Monday.

“Although we gathered here for talks on normalizing ties, certainly we are far apart,” Jong told Suzuki after the two shook hands before the talks began. “There are differences over various views. There are issues which cannot be solved without cooperation.”

The 13-member Japanese delegation showed up with blue ribbons pinned to their jackets. The ribbons symbolize a domestic movement aimed at quickly settling the issue of abducted Japanese citizens.

A remark attributed to North Korean deputy chief negotiator Pak Ryong Yon that the two sides have agreed to handle the issue at future working-level talks was later denied by a Japanese official.

Pak is deputy chief of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s bureau in charge of Japanese affairs.

At the landmark summit in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, where Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il agreed to restart the normalization talks, Kim admitted for the first time that his country’s agents had abducted Japanese people.

North Korea told Japan that of the 13 people it kidnapped, five were alive and eight were dead.

But relatives of the victims say they have serious doubts over North Korea’s accounts of how the abductees died.

The Japanese delegates handed their North Korean counterparts a list of Tokyo’s doubts about the deaths and called for a “sincere response” from the North.

Earlier talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang held in Beijing broke down in October 2000 over the abductions and North Korea’s demand that it be compensated for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula. The two countries have never established diplomatic relations.

Suzuki’s demand regarding the nuclear weapons program is in line with the Pyongyang Declaration that Koizumi and Kim signed in the North Korean capital in September.

The leaders confirmed in the declaration that the North would comply with all international accords related to nuclear and missile issues on the peninsula and resolve the issues in a comprehensive manner.

On Saturday in Mexico, Koizumi, U.S. President George W. Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung released a statement saying the North’s continued enrichment of uranium constitutes a violation of a 1994 accord called the Agreed Framework signed between Pyongyang and Washington.

Suzuki also handed Jong letters written by the parents of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted to North Korea in 1977 and is said to have died there, to her daughter and husband in Pyongyang, the official said.