Japan, North Korea Red Cross groups to meet over war remains proposal

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

The Japanese Red Cross Society said Tuesday its officials will meet with their North Korean counterparts in Beijing this week to discuss the retrieval of Japanese remains from the war and its aftermath in what is now North Korea.

It said three officials from each side will hold a two-day working-level meeting Thursday to share their views on the issue and on visits to the graves containing the remains.

The Japanese Red Cross said the meeting would be its first with the North Korean Red Cross in almost 10 years. The last one was held in Pyongyang in August 2002 to discuss the whereabouts of Japanese abducted by North Korean spies.

The Korean Peninsula was divided into the communist North and the capitalist South after Japan brutally annexed the country from 1910 to 1945.

Expectations have risen in Japan that developments in the area could help restart talks on other issues between the two countries, which have no diplomatic ties. Japan is particularly keen to reopen talks on the abduction issue.

The Japanese Red Cross is taking the lead on the matter because venues for dialogue have effectively been shut between the two governments because of friction over the abductions, which took place decades ago, and North Korea’s provocative nuclear and missile programs.

The two Red Cross groups agreed to the meeting after the Japanese side proposed it, noting that retrieval of remains and graveyard visits would constitute humanitarian moves, according to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

No government official from either country is expected to participate in the meeting.

The Japanese Red Cross Society hopes to hand over the matter to the two governments once sufficient progress is made, but no procedural rules have been stipulated for the discussions.

“I suppose we’ll begin the talks with a clean slate,” a public relations official from the Japanese Red Cross said. “We can’t foresee at this point what we may be able to agree on.”

Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba has described the retrieval issue as an “unresolved matter that’s important from a humanitarian standpoint,” but ministry has refrained from directly approaching North Korea on the matter.

In the confusion at the end of World War II, 34,600 Japanese soldiers and civilians died on the Korean Peninsula, including in parts that later became North Korean territory. Today, the remains of about 21,600 Japanese are still believed to be in the North.

While the Japanese government has worked elsewhere to retrieve war remains, it has yet to do so for those left in North Korea because of the lack of diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.

A Japanese group seeking to visit North Korea to retrieve the remains has recently renewed its request for the government to open a dialogue with Pyongyang on the matter.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died last December and was succeeded by his youngest son Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be in his late 20s. The young Kim has since become “marshal” of the army and reshuffled the military’s leadership in a move analysts see as an attempt to curb its power and potentially open the way for economic reforms.