Senior working-level talks with North to start

Kyodo

Japan and North Korea have agreed to hold senior working-level talks from Thursday on “a wide range of issues” in Ulan Bator, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura announced.

“In the talks, we’ll discuss a wide range of issues of interest to both sides,” Fujimura told reporters Friday, adding, “I want to pin my hopes on them” since the discussions with Pyongyang will be held at the highest level in years.

The official Korean Central News Agency also reported the scheduled talks Friday, saying officials will discuss “issues for the improvement of the bilateral relations.” Mongolia was chosen as the venue for the two-day meeting because security is tight in Beijing, which is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

Tokyo plans to use the talks to pressure Pyongyang to work toward resolving the abductions of Japanese nationals by its agents in the 1970s and ’80s, one of the major obstacles to normalizing bilateral relations, according to sources.

It further intends to demand that North Korea open a new investigation into the whereabouts of Japanese abductees, including Megumi Yokota, whom Pyongyang claims died years ago despite her parents’ vehement protestations to the contrary.

However, exactly how the North will respond is highly uncertain, as the meeting was arranged despite Pyongyang’s repeated assertions that the Japanese abductee issue has already been fully settled.

Pyongyang is instead expected to insist that the two sides prioritize the repatriation of the remains of Japanese who died in what is now North Korea during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, and possible visits by their relatives to graveyards in the country.

This would put Tokyo in a bind, given its desire to make progress on the abduction issue at all costs, and any difficulties in making progress could see the discussions drag on through next Sunday, one of the sources said.

Other issues that could be covered include Pyongyang’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile threats, as well as the repatriation of Japanese nationals who accompanied their Korean husbands to North Korea decades ago.

The director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, Shinsuke Sugiyama, and North Korea’s Song Il Ho, who is charge of overseeing Japanese affairs and talks to normalize relations with Tokyo, will represent the two sides.

In late August, working-level officials from Japan and North Korea met in Beijing and held the first intergovernmental talks between the two countries in four years.

During the three-day meeting through Aug. 31, Pyongyang requested that the next round of talks be organized at a division director-level, but it has apparently relented in the face of Tokyo’s calls for discussions to take place among more senior officials, who wield greater authority.

A Foreign Ministry official said that after the talks in Beijing, the two sides agreed to include a wide-ranging list of issues of mutual interest on the agenda at their next discussions, and to upgrade them to a senior working level as soon as possible.