PYONGYANG – North Korea appears to be considering using home visits by Japanese women who moved to the isolated state with their Korean husbands in a 1959-1984 repatriation project as leverage to improve relations with Tokyo.
North Korea’s official media ran notes by Mitsuko Minakawa, one of these women, in January in an apparent attempt to grab Japan’s attention, especially when the two countries have been mired in the dispute over the abductions of Japanese nationals and other issues that prevent the normalization of diplomatic ties.
Despite an absence of intergovernmental talks since August 2008, Hiroshi Nakai, a former state minister in charge of the abduction issue, and Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for normalization talks with Japan, had secret contacts in China last July and January.
In March in Mongolia, Song met with a Japanese scholar who acted as a proxy for Nakai and the two discussed issues including homecoming visits by the Japanese wives.
In a series of contacts, Song expressed a readiness to negotiate this issue with Japan, according to sources familiar with bilateral relations.
In the January meeting, Nakai and Song also discussed retrieval of the remains of Japanese people who stayed in what is now North Korea after the end of World War II and later died there, in yet another attempt to improve ties, the sources said.
In an interview in Pyongyang on Thursday, Minakawa, 73, said that she would leap at the opportunity to again visit Japan in the form of a homecoming program similar to one in which she participated in 1997.
Minakawa said that though she has lived in North Korea for 52 years and holds North Korean citizenship, her yearning for Japan has been increasing as she gets older, and she wants to see her brother in Osaka and sister in Yokohama again before she dies.
“Despite soured ties between the states, I wonder if nongovernmental entities can run a program that would allow us to travel back and forth between the two countries,” she said.
Minakawa called for a program akin to one handled by the Red Cross societies of the two countries between 1997 and 2000 that allowed her and 42 other wives to visit Japan for reunions with their relatives.
Meanwhile, Minakawa, whose Korean name is Kim Kwang Ok, said she thinks Japan and North Korea have “settled” the abduction issue, repeating Pyongyang’s official position.
Asked what made her the happiest since she landed on North Korean soil in April 1960, Minakawa said she became a member of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea after her 1997 trip to Japan.
An agreement struck at the last round of Japan-North Korea intergovernmental talks in August 2008 in Shenyang, China, said that North Korea would reinvestigate the cases of Japanese nationals it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, but this has yet to be carried out, according to Japanese officials.
A Maritime Self-Defense Force transport vessel carrying Patriot missiles arrived Friday in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, after the interceptors were deployed last week for North Korea’s rocket launch.
After the Kunisaki arrived, MSDF personnel moved out the equipment, including launch pads and guidance systems, in 40 minutes, the MSDF said.