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Flexibility urged toward Pyongyang, incoming leader

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo News

PYONGYANG — A call by a senior North Korean official for Japan to take a flexible approach on bilateral ties appears to reflect Pyongyang’s hope for a shift in Tokyo’s diplomacy as the North celebrates the official debut of its future leader.

The two governments, which have not talked on bilateral issues in more than two years, have been deadlocked over ways to improve relations, especially on the handling of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The current situation, I would say, is that Japan is ‘abducted’ by the abduction issue,” Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for normalization talks with Japan, said in an interview Tuesday.

Still, some analysts believe the anointment of Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, as future leader could eventually herald a fresh start in North Korean diplomacy. They say the time may be right for Tokyo and Pyongyang to resume dialogue.

Song said Prime Minister Naoto Kan should change Tokyo’s stance and work toward improving overall ties with Pyongyang rather than focusing almost exclusively on the abduction issue, which, he said, would only make things worse.

While both sides share the same goal — normalization of diplomatic relations — they differ sharply on how to go about realizing it.

Japan argues the abduction issue must be addressed before normalizing relations, while North Korea calls for improving overall ties and building confidence, which it says will lead to “naturally settling the abduction issue.”

And both sides say the ball is in the other’s court.

While Song said Japan must first remove sanctions and other political obstacles to create favorable conditions for better relations, he did not elaborate on how the two countries would eventually settle the abduction issue as they improve ties.

The ambassador criticized Japan for using the abduction issue as an excuse to evade compensating the Korean people for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

“I think relations will get better if Japan shifts even one-tenth of the attention it pays to the abductions to the settlement of the past,” he said.