A two-day meeting began Thursday in Beijing between the Japanese and North Korean Red Cross societies on repatriating the remains of Japanese nationals.
The meeting is being viewed as a litmus test of Pyongyang’s readiness to move forward on the abductee issue.
Tokyo is hoping the meeting, the first such contact between the two organizations in a decade, will help jump-start stalled bilateral talks on the abduction of Japanese nationals by the North’s agents in the 1970s and ’80s, and is cautiously watching new leader Kim Jong Un’s approach.
Pyongyang is stressing that the remains retrieval and repatriation, as well as visits to apparent burial sites in North Korea, are a humanitarian matter amid some signs the closed country may be softening its stance on decades-old bilateral disputes. Japan and the North have no official diplomatic relations.
The Japanese Red Cross Society said Tuesday its officials will meet with their North Korean counterparts to discuss repatriating what are believed to be the remains of Imperial army soldiers, officials and civilians who died during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, and allowing Japanese relatives to visit the locations.
“We take the move as a positive step,” Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba told reporters Wednesday, adding North Korea must fully deal with both the remains and abductee issues.
With previous talks between the two Red Cross societies resulting in the two sides holding government-level talks over the abductees, a government source in Tokyo said the meeting “would be a good chance to gauge whether the North is ready to make progress on the matter.”
According to a source close to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s office, the chances of a breakthrough would increase if the two Red Cross societies started consulting on a regular basis.
North Korea officially treats the remains’ repatriation separately from other sources of bilateral tension after talks between the two countries became deadlocked over the abductees.
At the same time, however, Pyongyang may be paving the way to improve bilateral ties by quietly urging Tokyo to act promptly on the remains retrieval and repatriation, arguing it will become harder to resolve as time passes.
During a meeting with a Japanese delegation of former Diet lawmakers and municipal assembly members in April, Song Il Ho, a senior North Korean official in charge of bilateral affairs, expressed Pyongyang’s readiness to comply with requests to send the remains back to Japan.
In June, the North showed Kyodo News and two TV networks a couple of apparent burial sites. Pyongyang then expressed its readiness to allow Japanese relatives to visit them and to permit Japan to conduct research.
The latest move by the Red Cross societies coincides with the 10th anniversary next month of the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, which committed both countries to work toward the normalization of diplomatic relations.
New Takeshima row flares
Tokyo has protested to Seoul over a government white paper that describes the disputed Takeshima Islands in the Sea of Japan as South Korean territory.
“We decided to lodge a protest over the isles this time and already have submitted it” through the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said Wednesday. The islets are conrolled by Seoul, which calls them Dokdo, but claimed by Japan.
The complaint, officially filed Tuesday, calls for a retraction of the reference in South Korea’s latest white paper on diplomacy, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The territory consists of two small islets, one with a South Korean garrison, and numerous reefs. Japan claims them as part of Shimane Prefecture, while the South says they are part of North Gyeongsang Province.