/

Iijima’s North trip ups hope for progress on abductions

Experts suspect Pyongyang seeks to weaken Tokyo-Seoul-Washington unity against threats

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Tokyo authorized and is in charge of the surprise trip to Pyongyang by special adviser Isao Iijima, a senior government official indicated Wednesday, while Cabinet members all remained tight-lipped in public amid speculation the government hopes to resume direct talks with North Korea to resolve the abduction issue.

Experts speculated, however, that Pyongyang might have lured Iijima to the North on Tuesday as part of a ploy to drive a wedge in Japan’s alliance with South Korea and the United States against the North’s nuclear and missile threats.

Iijima, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s top aide when he made two trips to Pyongyang and returned home with five abductees, reportedly plans to meet high-ranking North Korean officials by the end of this week.

Japanese officials declined comment on the trip and instead stressed that Japan will continue to press the North to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Asked to explain Iijima’s visit, Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida refused to comment Wednesday.

“Our policy on North Korean matters has been made clear. . . . We seek comprehensive solutions to various issues, including the abductions, nuclear weapons and missiles,” Suga told reporters.

But he added: “In particular, the abduction issue is one of the most important agenda items the government wants to resolve.”

The issue over the abductees, who were captured by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, has been a key focus of public concern and sympathy, and politicians, particularly Abe, have long sought to secure the return of any survivors.

Experts thus suspect North Korea approached Iijima by dangling the resumption of talks over the abductions in a bid to weaken Japan’s anti-Pyongyang stance with South Korea and the United States.

Tsutomu Nishioka, chairman of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, suspects Pyongyang is trying to get Japan to ease its sanctions against the North by promising, for example, to launch a joint investigative team into the abductions.

“I suspect (Pyongyang) might be trying to block (Japan, South Korea and the U.S.) from cooperating,” Nishioka wrote on his blog Wednesday.

He argued against making “any easy compromise” to resolve the abductions, saying such an attempt “will no doubt just end up in failure.”

Iijima accompanied Koizumi when he visited Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004 to negotiate for the return of abductees.

During an interview with TV Asahi on April 3, Iijima said that “you can expect some progress in the abduction issue,” adding that a surprise visit by Abe to Pyongyang may be possible. He didn’t mention any ongoing negotiations with the North at the time.

Abe was another close Koizumi aide when he visited Pyongyang in 2002. Abe emerged as a popular politician largely thanks to his tough stance on the abductions.