Maehara hopes 2011 yields North dialogue

by Masami Ito

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said Tuesday he hopes to create an environment for direct dialogue between Japan and North Korea this year in an effort to resolve Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese and press the reclusive state to drop its nuclear and missile threats.

“The abductee issue is a problem that is related to our nation’s sovereignty and it is important for the two countries to be able to hold direct talks on the abductions, the missile and the nuclear issues,” Maehara said during his first news conference of the year.

“Japan-North Korea talks have not been active, (but) it is a major theme for this year not to leave it up to other countries or only taking up the North Korean issue at the six-party talks or (other) multilevel frameworks,” he said.

Tension on the Korean Peninsula rose dramatically in November when North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four people. It was one of the most violent attacks since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

Tensions were already high after the March sinking of a South Korean warship with the loss of 46 sailors. It is believed a North Korean torpedo sank the ship, although Pyongyang denies this.

On Saturday, North Korea issued a joint editorial in three newspapers that called for improving ties with the South.

Maehara, however, pointed out that Pyongyang issued a similar “soft-tone” editorial the year before.

“Naturally, we would like to see peace, denuclearization and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Maehara said. “But we must firmly consider North Korea’s real intention and its past action patterns, and take measures cautiously.”

It is necessary to strengthen security ties with South Korea, he said, but added that the issue is sensitive considering Japan’s past colonial rule of the peninsula.

According to the Foreign Ministry, a South Korean newspaper Monday misquoted Maehara as saying he hopes to establish a bilateral security alliance with Seoul.

“Last year marked 100 years since Japan (placed Korea under colonial rule) and 65 years since the end of World War II, but I think that the South Koreans may see the Japan-South Korea security cooperation differently from us,” Maehara said.

“Japan needs to have that sensitivity and hold close discussions with South Korea on various issues to promote cooperation in all areas,” he said.

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa is expected to visit Seoul this month to discuss a military agreement that stipulates mutual obligations of sharing food, water and fuel as well as cooperation in transportation and medical areas. Maehara is also reportedly set to visit South Korea. Neither confirmed nor denied such plans Tuesday.

“The defense minister will be going and naturally, he and his counterpart will be discussing security cooperation,” Maehara said. “As foreign minister, I believe that the important theme is how to manage and strengthen Japan-South Korea relations on a comprehensive level.”