Japan issues wary welcome, awaits concrete action, warns of loopholes

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

North Korea’s surprise promise to freeze its nuclear arms program is a positive development, but there is no guarantee it will live up to its word and the hermit state should take concrete action before resuming the six-party talks, the government and Japanese experts said Thursday.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba welcomed Wednesday night’s declaration, a result of last week’s U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks.

But he stressed that it is only one step forward in the long process of ending North Korea’s nuclear quest, as demanded by Japan and other countries.

“Our goal remains completely the same — we want Pyongyang to suspend all of its nuclear facilities and a complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea,” Genba said. “But (this agreement) is an important step forward and we hope that it will become the foundation that will lead to a moratorium on all of its nuclear-related programs.”

Pyongyang said it would stop long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities including uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon, and would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor and confirm the moratorium on uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon facility. In return, it is to receive 240,000 metric tons of food aid and will be given additional support if necessary.

But Pyongyang has broken its promises in a number of similar deals, and diplomats and experts suspect Pyongyang may once again withdraw the disarmament pledge once it receives the aid.

“There is no guarantee that North Korea will take concrete action . . . and it is a moratorium with details that still need to be adjusted,” Genba stressed. “But in the long run, it could be an important step.”

The agreement only refers to the suspension of work at the Yongbyon uranium enrichment facility, thus experts point out that North Korea could still continue its nuclear programs elsewhere.

“Uranium enrichment can be done in other places and so the problem remains of how the North intends to clear itself of such suspicions,” said Masao Okonogi, a professor at Keio University and an expert on North Korean issues.

“Nowhere in the agreement does it say that it won’t enrich uranium anywhere else . . . but when you are dealing with North Korea, I think it is difficult to aim for a complete agreement.”

Okonogi said the announcement indicates “progress,” but he is doubtful the hermit state will begin to take action in the near future, especially as the United States and South Korea are currently conducting joint military training.

“This is only a moratorium, and what will happen in the future, including the denuclear-ization of Pyongyang, is a completely separate story,” Okonogi said. “I find it hard to believe that North Korea will take action anytime soon . . . but of course, if it does, the six-party talks will have to resume.”

The last time the six-party talks on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programs were held was December 2008. Since then, the North has test-launched a long-range missile and conducted a nuclear weapons test, and was slapped with sanctions by the international community, including the U.N., Japan and the U.S.

Meanwhile, bilateral talks between Japan and North Korea have likewise stalled since summer 2008 and Genba indicated Thursday this is unlikely to change.

Meanwhile political leaders in Tokyo will find it difficult to ease economic sanctions as long as the abductions of Japanese nationals remain unresolved.

Almost no progress has been made on this dispute since 2002, when five abductees were returned to Japan.

“Japan will eventually have to take some sort of action — because if things remain as they are with Japan not willing to budge until progress can be seen on the abduction issue, it will only stand in the way of the other countries,” Okonogi said.