BEIJING – The adviser quarterbacking Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s PR team secretly visited the Chinese port city of Dalian near North Korea for about four days in late October, diplomatic sources said Monday, fueling speculation that Tokyo has resumed delicate talks with Pyongyang.
Given that Dalian has been used in the past for secret meetings between Japan and North Korea, it is possible special adviser Isao Iijima also made contact with North Korean officials there in October.
The visit was revealed by several diplomatic sources in Beijing after senior Japanese diplomats were found to have traveled to Vietnam in late January for a possible meeting with North Korean officials.
Amid Japan’s soured ties with China and South Korea over territorial and historical issues, the sources said that behind-the-scenes negotiations between Abe’s government and North Korea have become more active.
There is some information that Iijima might have also met with Chinese officials in the major port city, which is reachable by direct flights from Japan but attracts less media attention than going to Beijing.
Iijima’s visit comes at a time when the fate of the headquarters site and building of the General Association of Korean Residents (Chongryon), the North’s de facto mission in Japan, is up in the air after being put up for auction. Some bidders have been rejected.
A Mongolian company submitted a winning bid on Oct. 17 for the headquarters property and building, but the de facto embassy is still being used by the association because the Tokyo District Court rejected the bid, saying some of the documents the company submitted for the auction were not credible.
Iijima made what was supposed to be a secret trip to Pyongyang last May for talks with senior North Korean officials. During the meeting, which Japan’s allies only learned of because it was broadcast by the North’s state TV, he was apparently asked for help in getting Chongryon officials permission to continue using the headquarters.
If Iijima met with any North Korean official in October, it is almost certain that the fate of the de facto embassy was discussed.
Iijima was a top aide to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and accompanied him for talks in North Korea with then-leader Kim Jong Il in September 2002 and May 2004 in Pyongyang.
After returning from Pyongyang last year, Iijima called for talks between Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to achieve a breakthrough on the abduction issue, which concerns the North’s kidnapping of Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s.
Resolving the issue — which remains a key stumbling block in the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and North Korea — has been one of Abe’s most important political goals, along with revising the Constitution.
Five of the 17 Japanese the government has identified as having been abducted by North Korea were repatriated to Japan in October 2002, a month after the first Koizumi-Kim talks.
While Japan rejects North Korea’s position that the remaining abductees are dead, Pyongyang has repeatedly said the issue has already been settled.