Japan was considering the resumption of bilateral talks with North Korea in hopes of making progress on the abduction issue following a recent trip to Pyongyang by one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top advisers, sources said Tuesday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated at a news conference the same day that future bilateral negotiations — suspended since last December — would be conducted through the Foreign Ministry rather than the back channel used by Abe adviser Isao Iijima during his trip to the North last week.
If resumed, however, Japan will face the difficult task of balancing international coordination on North Korea’s nuclear program with Tokyo’s desire to engage Pyongyang on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the Stalinist nation.
Iijima’s visit has drawn the ire of the United States and South Korea as Japan and the two allies had maintained a united front in their efforts not to engage the North in dialogue until Pyongyang took steps toward returning to denuclearization talks.
Iijima briefed Abe on Tuesday about his discussions with senior North Korean officials, telling reporters after the meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, “I think the prime minister will put (his belief) into action with unwavering resolve.”
The bilateral talks would cover a reinvestigation into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, and the possible return to Japan of Japanese women who accompanied their Korean spouses to North Korea decades ago.
Such talks would be held in a third country, such as Mongolia, sources said.
Iijima indicated to reporters the same day that Abe would seek to make progress on the abduction issue — a major obstacle that has prevented the two nations from normalizing ties, after being briefed on the series of meetings in Pyongyang during Iijima’s four-day trip.
Suga, the top government spokesman, told a news conference that the Abe, who has pledged to resolve the abduction issue during his term as prime minister, “will seek every possibility” in breaking the gridlock.
Also Tuesday, Keiji Furuya, minister in charge of the abduction issue, said Tokyo urged Pyongyang to return all Japanese nationals suspected of being kidnapped by agents of the North, in addition to those officially recognized by Tokyo as abductees.
Counting suspected cases investigated independently by a civic group, the potential number of abductees totals more than 400. The government currently has placed 17 people on its list of abductees.
“Our basic policy is getting back all people abducted by North Korea,” Furuya said on a television program. “Mr. Iijima delivered that message.”
Iijima visited Pyongyang from May 14-17, conveying to top North Korean officials Abe’s strong desire to address the abduction issue. The senior officials he met while in the country included the country’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam.
Iijima was a top aide to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, accompanying him in 2002 and 2004 to Pyongyang for talks with Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader at the time. The September 2002 talks ended with the return to Japan of five abductees the following month.
North Korea has stuck to its stance that the abduction issue has already been resolved, much to the consternation of the families of kidnapping victims who have yet to be accounted for, including Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977 at the age of 13.
The talks between Japan and North Korea, which had resumed in August for the first time in four years, were suspended when Pyongyang announced in December that it would launch an “Earth observation satellite.”
North Korea followed up the announcement by successfully launching a rocket later in the month, a move widely viewed as a test of banned ballistic missile technology. It also conducted a third nuclear test in February, sparking strong international condemnation.