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Abductees top agenda for Japan-North talks

Kyodo

During negotiations beginning Monday in Sweden, Japan aims to get North Korea to agree to reinvestigate the fates of Japanese it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, government sources said Saturday.

Japan is considering easing sanctions it has unilaterally imposed on North Korea, such as travel restrictions, if the reinvestigation makes a certain amount of progress, the sources said.

It will also ask North Korea to put any agreements reached during the three-day talks through Wednesday in the capital, Stockholm, in writing, they said.

A major focus will be on how North Korea responds to Japan’s demands from the last round of negotiations in late March in Beijing, for reinvestigating other abduction cases and returning more victims to Japan.

North Korea’s past probes of abductions were dismissed by Japan as unconvincing. In 2008, Pyongyang promised to make another effort but has yet to do so.

In 2002, North Korea admitted whisking away 13 Japanese, but Japan officially lists 17 as abductees and suspects Pyongyang’s involvement in other disappearances. Five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002.

As with the Beijing session, the talks in Stockholm will take place between Junichi Ihara, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan.

Ihara is expected to tell Song that Japan is ready to gradually lift some sanctions once it identifies substantial progress in reinvestigating what became of the those abducted and still missing, the sources said.

One sanction that Japan thinks it can ease is the Japan re-entry ban on senior members of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, they said.

The Chongryon headquarters in Tokyo has functioned as the North’s de facto embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two.

To make North Korea more forward-looking in launching and conducting any new probes, Japan may show flexibility on the timing of easing the sanctions, the sources said.

In Stockholm, Song is expected to call on the Japanese government to block the sale of the Chongryon headquarters building in Tokyo.

The Tokyo High Court recently dismissed Chongryon’s appeal against the HQ’s sale to a Japanese real estate company, after the property was ordered sold to raise money to cover debts left by a failed credit union serving pro-Pyongyang Koreans living in Japan. Chongryon has appealed the matter to the Supreme Court.

Ihara plans to tell Song that the government cannot intervene in any judicial process under the principle of separation of powers.

On security, Ihara is expected to urge North Korea to abstain from provocative acts, such new nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches.

Under a policy of “dialogue and pressure,” Japan, with the United States and South Korea, is trying to comprehensively resolve the abduction issue and get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

As for North Korea’s request for Japan to “settle its past,” or compensate for the suffering of the Korean people under Japan’s brutal 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Ihara is expected to reiterate Tokyo’s position that Japan will extend economic cooperation to North Korea after normalizing relations as spelled out in the Pyongyang Declaration, a key diplomatic document signed by the two countries’ leaders in 2002.

Ihara and Song are expected to agree to accelerate work toward retrieval of the remains of Japanese who died around the end of World War II in what is now North Korea. There have been calls to relocate several burial sites in areas where development is planned.