STOCKHOLM – Japan and North Korea began three days of negotiations in Sweden on Monday, with Tokyo expected to press Pyongyang to reinvestigate the fates of Japanese citizens it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s and who remain missing.
Japan is considering lifting some of the sanctions it imposes on North Korea once it sees substantial progress, government sources said.
Japanese officials are watching for how North Korea may respond to the demand, made during the last round of talks, in late March in Beijing. It also demanded that the missing individuals be returned to Japan. Pyongyang has said it believes the abduction issue settled.
“When you negotiate with North Korea, you match words with words and action with action,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “If they say positive words, we will return positive words. If they take positive action, we will do likewise.”
North Korea has in the past investigated what happened to the abductees, but Japan dismissed the results as unconvincing. In 2008, Pyongyang promised to reinvestigate, but it has yet to do so.
“We hope things will move forward, even if only by one step,” Japan’s top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Monday in Tokyo.
Asked if Japan is prepared to ease sanctions on North Korea once Pyongyang reinvestigates the whereabouts of Japanese abductees, the chief Cabinet secretary replied that the government would “consider the most effective way” to move forward.
As with the Beijing session, the talks in Stockholm are between Junichi Ihara, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Foreign Ministry, and Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan.
North Korea proposed that Ihara and Song meet in the Swedish capital this time, Japanese officials said, without elaborating.
Experts say an accord Japan and North Korea struck in 2008 in Shenyang, China, could serve as a reference for the negotiations in Stockholm.
Though it was not implemented, the accord states that once North Korea starts reinvestigation of abduction cases, Japan will lift travel restrictions between the two countries and allow direct charter flights.
“If there is any agreement, I think the Shenyang accord would be a baseline for it,” said Narushige Michishita, a professor of international security and Korea studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Michishita cautioned that if Japan attaches too many conditions for easing sanctions, such as demanding that North Korea produce tangible results in reinvestigating the abductions, the two sides may end up discussing how to address the abductions rather than dealing with the issue itself.
“As long as the two sides make sure that North Korea will conduct reinvestigation steadily, things should move forward,” he said.
Underscoring his comments, the government sources said that to encourage North Korea to take action, Japan may show some flexibility in the timing of easing sanctions.
Japan officially lists 17 nationals as abductees, but suspects North Korea’s involvement in other disappearances. While five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002, Pyongyang claims eight have died and four others never entered the country.
In Stockholm, Song is expected to call on the Japanese government to block the sale of the headquarters site and building in Tokyo of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon.
The building has functioned as a de facto North Korean embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries.