Recently resumed talks between Japan and North Korea are all but certain to stall again following the North’s launch of a long-range rocket Wednesday, jeopardizing Tokyo’s hopes of making progress on the issue of abductions of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang decades ago.
The expected interruption of dialogue between the two countries, which went into full swing in November after a four-year hiatus, will be a blow to the aging relatives of any surviving abductees yet to be repatriated.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, who is in charge of resolving the abduction issue, expressed concern last week that the North Korean rocket launch would make it difficult to hold a new round of bilateral talks on the matter.
“Efforts to resolve outstanding issues through Japan-North Korea consultations would suffer a huge setback,” he told a news conference.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba, speaking at a news conference after Wednesday’s launch, declined comment on when the intergovernmental talks between the two countries would resume.
“We are not now at a stage to say,” he said.
The abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s and a dispute over their fate have been a major obstacle to establishing bilateral diplomatic relations.
Given polls showing the Liberal Democratic Party may win a landslide victory in Sunday’s general election, it is increasing likely that party chief Shinzo Abe, who is viewed as favoring a tough stance on North Korea, will return to power as prime minister.
If that happens, relations between Japan and North Korea, soured for years by the abductions, could worsen, depending on how Pyongyang responds to the stance taken by Tokyo after the election.
No formal talks had been held between Japan and North Korea since 2008.
But in August, Tokyo and Pyongyang resumed working-level talks between their Foreign Ministry officials.
In November, the two sides held higher-level talks involving Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and Song Il Ho, ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan.
The two officials agreed then to continue consulting over the abduction issue, leading Japan to grow more hopeful that a policy change may be under way in North Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, who took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, last December.
Sugiyama and Song were scheduled to hold a second round of talks on Dec. 5 and 6, with the focus on possible progress in looking into the fate of those still missing, including Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977 at age 13 and has become a symbolic figure among the abductees.
But North Korea’s announcement on Dec. 1 that it planned to launch a satellite-carrying rocket during a 13-day period beginning Monday prompted Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to tell North Korea that Tokyo intends to postpone the planned talks.
“We’d like to at least maintain negotiation channels,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. But a high-level government official said any consultations have become difficult for the time being, given the need to take stern action against what Tokyo has called a provocative act by Pyongyang.
North Korea watchers have begun floating the possibility that the country may conduct another nuclear test, given that in 2009, the country conducted its last nuclear test soon after launching a long-range rocket that flew over northeastern Japan.
“If they do it, talks will completely be out of the picture,” a government official said.