Abductee issue clouds restart of North talks

Kyodo

While Tokyo and Pyongyang are set to resume government-level talks for the first time in four years, uncertainty remains over a resolution to North Korea’s past abductions of Japanese nationals.

The bilateral talks, scheduled to kick off Aug. 29 in Beijing, will focus primarily on retrieving and repatriating the remains of Japanese who died on the Korean Peninsula toward the end of the war, and allowing visits by their relatives to burial sites in the North.

Tokyo is also hoping to make progress on the long-stalled abductee issue to buoy anemic support ratings for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s administration.

Pyongyang has long clung to the position that the matter has already been settled and no abductees remain alive in the North, but some observers say the regime of new leader Kim Jong Un might display a softer stance toward bilateral relations to secure aid from Japan, given the North’s shattered economy and chronic food shortages.

At first, Tokyo was hesitant to engage in the government-level talks, fearing that discussing the remains retrieval could result in other crucial issues being sidelined, including the abductions and Pyongyang’s nuclear arms and missile threats.

Also, a failure to make any progress over the abductee issue could see Noda’s government come under fire from the public as well as the United States and South Korea, which both take a hardline stance toward the North.

But with September marking the 10th anniversary of the first bilateral summit, involving then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, calls have been growing within Noda’s government to closely monitor’s Pyongyang’s approach at the talks under Kim’s son, who only came to power in December, government sources said.

Last week, officials from the Japanese Red Cross Society and their North Korean counterparts met in Beijing and agreed to ask their respective governments to discuss the retrieval and repatriation of the remains. Foreign Ministry officials who were briefed on that meeting determined there were signs North Korea’s stance toward Japan may be shifting, the sources said.

With Noda’s support rate plummeting due to the recently passed sales tax hike bill and its handling of territorial disputes with China and South Korea, his administration quickly agreed to resume bilateral talks with the North in hopes of boosting its ratings, a government source said.