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Red Cross meeting seen as a rare opportunity to push a low-key diplomatic agenda

Japan eyes informal talks with North

Kyodo

Japan plans to hold unofficial talks with North Korea when government officials from the two countries attend a meeting of their respective Red Cross societies in Shenyang, northeast China, on Monday.

Japanese officials hope informal talks will lead to the resumption of bilateral negotiations that have been suspended since the previous session in Ulan Bator in November 2012, a month before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power.

A senior North Korean diplomat on Saturday did not rule out the possibility of holding informal intergovernmental talks on the sidelines of the meeting between Red Cross officials.

“That we don’t know until we get there,” Ryu Song Il, a North Korean diplomat in charge of Japanese affairs, said at Pyongyang airport before leaving for Shenyang,

In the Red Cross meeting, which will involve officials from the Japanese and North Korean foreign ministries, the two organizations will discuss the possibility of retrieving the remains of Japanese who died around the end of World War II in what is now North Korea.

The North Korean Red Cross Society requested the meeting. Since the North’s Foreign Ministry has decided to send officials to the meeting, Japan was prompted to do the same.

Expressing hope for the resumption of government-to-government negotiations, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday, “We want to draw a positive response from North Korea on the abductions and other outstanding issues between the two countries.”

Suga, the top government spokesman, was referring to North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, which have prevented the two countries from normalizing diplomatic relations.

Talks between the two Red Cross societies in August 2012 led to the first intergovernmental talks in four years. But the revived talks were suspended in the wake of North Korea’s December launch, that same year, of a “satellite,” which Japan and other countries condemned as a cover story for a covert test of long-range missile technology carried out in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Keiichi Ono, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Northeast Asia Division, will attend Monday’s meeting, along with Ryu Song Il, chief of the Japanese affairs section at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, Osamu Tasaka, director-general of the international department at the Japanese Red Cross Society, and Ri Ho Rim, secretary-general of the North Korean Red Cross Society.

“We should regard a call for dialogue from North Korea as a forward-looking gesture,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “We don’t know until we hear what they say.”

Asked whether Ono will make any proposal in the envisaged talks with Ryu, the official, requesting anonymity, said, “We would first like to hear what they say. We don’t plan to throw a ball from our side, though we are analyzing the internal situation in North Korea and external affairs surrounding it.”

Asked how Japan will push the abduction issue forward, the official said the government “must tackle the issue with a firm resolve as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly shown determination to address it.”

Japan officially lists 17 nationals as having been abducted by North Korea, but suspects Pyongyang’s involvement in other disappearances. Five abductees were repatriated in 2002.

Japan has demanded that North Korea reinvestigate the whereabouts of abductees who have not been returned to Japan. But whenever Japan has brought up the abduction issue, North Korea has urged it to “settle its past” or compensate for the suffering of the Korean people under Japan’s brutal 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Since the August 2012 Red Cross meeting, several groups of Japanese nationals have visited burial sites believed to contain the remains of their relatives.

According to the government, around 34,600 Japanese are believed to have died of hunger and disease during the final phase of World War II in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. The remains of 13,000 people have already been repatriated to Japan.