SHENYANG, CHINA – Foreign Ministry officials held informal talks with their North Korean counterparts on the sidelines of a meeting Monday between the Red Cross societies of their respective nations in Shenyang, northeastern China.
The talks between Keiichi Ono, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Northeast Asia Division, and Ryu Song Il, chief of the Japanese affairs section at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, raised hope for the resumption of bilateral negotiations that have been suspended since an intergovernmental meeting in Ulan Bator in November 2012, a month before Pyongyang pushed ahead with a banned missile test.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears poised to reopen formal negotiations and has expressed determination to resolve the abduction issue, in which North Korean agents kidnapped several Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, while he is in office.
The issue has prevented the two countries from normalizing diplomatic relations.
The two Red Cross societies discussed the recovery of the remains of Japanese who died around the end of World War II in what is now North Korea.
“With the participation of officials from the two governments, I believe it will be a meaningful and important meeting,” Ri Ho Rim, secretary-general of the North Korean Red Cross Society, said at the meeting, the start of which was open to the media.
Osamu Tasaka, director general of the International Department at the Japanese Red Cross Society, said he thanks Keiichi Ono, director of the Northeast Asia Division of the Foreign Ministry, and Ryu Song Il, chief of the Japanese affairs section at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, “for joining us today.”
The North Korean Red Cross Society requested the meeting. Since the North’s Foreign Ministry decided to send officials to the meeting, Japan did the same.
Speaking to reporters Sunday, Tasaka said he does not believe the abduction issue will come up at the Red Cross meeting. There is speculation, however, that it may be taken up if Ono and Ryu meet on the sidelines.
Tasaka expressed hope that the Red Cross meeting will have a positive impact on bilateral relations.
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.
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.
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.