Japan stands firm with sanctions on North Korea

by Reiji Yoshida and Masami Ito

Japan will continue the economic sanctions it leveled against North Korea despite Pyongyang’s apparent about-face on returning to the multilateral talks to end its nuclear threat, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference Wednesday.

The top government spokesman pointed out it is still not clear if the North will end its nuclear weapons program as demanded in a recent U.N. Security Council resolution and a joint declaration from the six-party talks in September 2005.

“We will calmly implement what we decided to do as long as it remains unclear if (North Korea) will abide by” those requests, Shizoaki said.

Following Pyongyang’s Oct. 9 declared nuclear test, Japan toughened economic sanctions already in place in the wake of the July ballistic missile tests, including a complete ban on imports from the North, entry of North Korean vessels into Japanese ports and entry of North Korean nationals except for those living in Japan.

Japan, the United States, China, Russia and South Korea kept putting stronger pressure on the North to return to the six-nation talks after the nuclear test.

The North, which has even threatened to conduct a second test, suddenly agreed to revive the long-stalled talks after having a one-day chat with U.S. and Chinese negotiators Tuesday in Beijing.

Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo have welcomed Pyongyang’s turnabout, as they are deeply concerned about the North’s nuclear arms and missiles, which can reach most if not all of Japan.

But at the same time they remain skeptical of reaching a breakthrough in the six-way talks with a flip-flopping Pyongyang, and thus the economic sanctions will continue.

North Korea has a negotiating history of betrayals, turnabouts and delays.

In September 2005, the six countries signed a joint declaration with which Pyongyang pledged to renounce all of its nuclear weapons and arms development programs.

The talks subsequently stalled when Pyongyang argued that economic assistance should come first as compensation, while Washington argued the North should first end its nuclear weapon program.

“We really don’t know why the North has decided to return to the talks,” a senior Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity.

“(North Korea) has just returned to the talks after walking out on them. We are trying not to attach too much value on the return itself,” the official said, stressing that Japan’s goal is the total end of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, not just the resumption of the talks.

Tokyo has also refrained from issuing a formal statement on Pyongyang’s return to the talks, the official said.

The only remarks were casual welcomes Tuesday and Wednesday by Shiozaki and Foreign Ministry Taro Aso in response to questions from reporters.

The government’s skepticism was echoed by Shoichi Nakagawa, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council. He said it is too soon to judge it a sign of progress.

“North Korea is very good at diplomacy and may use this sudden return to play for time,” Nakagawa said in a speech at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo.

“We must watch carefully the next step and not harbor any strange hopes because (North Korea) is not such an easygoing country that all we need to do is talk things out,” he added.

Nakagawa, known as a loose canon when it comes to talk of Japan going nuclear, again touched on that issue.

“I think it is a natural that, if your country is under threat, the people or politicians discuss how to protect the country,” Nakagawa said. “What I am saying is that since (North Korea) is talking nuclear, Japan needs to discuss nuclear, too.”

Nakagawa drew criticism last month for stating that Japan should have a debate on nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has attempted to calm the waves by stressing that he stands by Japan’s three nonnuclear principles of not building, possessing or introducing nuclear weapons in Japan.