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Talks with North bring hope

Experts warn conciliatory gestures may be aimed at easing sanctions

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo

An informal intergovernmental meeting between Japanese and North Korean officials in Shenyang on Monday has rekindled hope for addressing issues of concern between the two countries, including Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

Details of the talks, which lasted for two hours, were not immediately known. But it is rare for officials from the two countries to meet, especially since Tokyo and Pyongyang have held no talks since they last met in Ulan Bator in November 2012, a month before the North pushed ahead with a banned missile test.

Monday’s meeting took place on the sidelines of Japan-North Korea Red Cross talks proposed by the North Korean Red Cross Society. Earlier there were unconfirmed news reports that officials from Japan and North Korea had secret contact in late January in Hanoi.

“We have to analyze why North Korea met us at this time,” a senior Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo said.

Bringing up the issue of the remains of Japanese who died around the end of World War II in what is now North Korea, Pyongyang appears ready to try to improve relations with Japan, which may now be seen as a good target as Tokyo finds it difficult to mend its soured ties with China and South Korea while remaining at odds with the U.S.

North Korea’s charm offensive is turning to South Korea as well. Last month Pyongyang allowed reunions of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War as scheduled for the first time in three years, despite earlier warning it might cancel them over U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.

Some experts say the North’s conciliatory gestures toward Japan and South Korea may be an attempt to ease sanctions on Pyongyang and disturb the two countries’ tie-ups with the U.S. in curbing the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Others argue the North’s recent moves indicate that leader Kim Jong Un may have strengthened his grip on power after the execution of his once-powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in December and the purge of top military officer Ri Yong Ho in 2012.

“With the execution of Jang Song Thaek, we can see that Kim Jong Un appears to have come half way to establishing his own leadership” with younger associates, said Masayuki Masuda, a senior fellow at the Northeast Asia Division of the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo.

Jang and Ri, who were much older than Kim and served under his father and longtime ruler Kim Jong Il, had been regarded as close aides to Kim Jong Un, who came to power after the death of his father in December 2011.

Referring to what Masuda called a “halfway” point, Masao Okonogi, a Keio University professor emeritus and an expert on Korean affairs, said he expects Kim Jong Un to complete reshuffling personnel and establish his own regime in 2015, four years after the death of Kim Jong Il.