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North’s missiles may have sent different message

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

As Japanese and North Korean envoys prepared to hold talks Tuesday, Tokyo faced the difficulty of assessing Pyongyang’s seriousness in its promised inquiry into the fates of abducted citizens while apparently snubbing Japan and other neighbors Sunday with a pair of missiles fired into the ocean.

However, the provocation might not have been all it seemed. Some experts who follow North Korean affairs said the reported launch of two short-range ballistic missiles was probably intended as a message to South Korea as it plans to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping on a visit to Seoul on Thursday.

Moreover, the North may have been hoping to weaken the ties binding Japan, the United States and South Korea at a time when it and Japan are meeting in Beijing, the experts said.

The launches can be largely ignored this time, but if the North continues provocative acts as the talks progress, Japan would be on the horns of a dilemma: whether to try to resolve the abduction issue once and for all or to join the U.S. and South Korea in heaping pressure on Pyongyang.

“Japan-North Korean talks could put the U.S. or South Korea on their guard if there are security threats to deal with,” said North Korea analyst Masao Okonogi, a professor emeritus at Keio University.

The talks on Tuesday will be between Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for talks on normalizing relations with Japan, and Junichi Ihara, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Foreign Ministry. Song is expected to brief his Japanese counterpart on which officials have been appointed to a special investigative committee promised by the North in a written agreement brokered in May, and about the team’s chief investigator and organizational structure.

Ihara will report back to Tokyo so that the government can try to assess whether the committee has the authority needed to investigate all North Korean state agencies — as was promised.

If Japan assesses the organization as viable, it will lift some of the sanctions it has unilaterally imposed on North Korea, including port calls by North Korean-registered ships visiting Japan for humanitarian purposes, government officials said.

Even though the lifting of such sanctions at the start of the investigation will have little impact on the North’s struggling economy, Japan has offered “humanitarian aid” in exchange for a full-fledged investigation. If that takes place, the international community might see it as weakening the broad blockade of North Korea over its missile and nuclear development, observers said.

Meanwhile, Tokyo needs to assess whether the special unit will have the genuine power to investigate what happened to the missing Japanese nationals, as it asks for access to records in perhaps the world’s most muscular police state.

Tokyo officially recognizes 17 individuals as having been kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Of them, five were returned to Japan in 2002 after diplomatic efforts by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The North said the rest had either died or never entered the country.

The key to the unit’s viability is whether or not it involves the Ministry of State Security, a secret police that reports to Kim and which had a strong influence in the kidnappings, analysts said. The involvement of Kim’s closest aides would also be a barometer by which to judge its effectiveness, they said. The last time the North investigated the kidnapping of Japanese nationals, in 2004, its probe unit was led by a senior official from the Ministry of People’s Security, which functions as the regular police force.

That inspection was deemed a farce, as human remains Pyongyang returned, saying they were those of Megumi Yokota, were revealed to be someone else’s. A DNA test ruled out a connection to Yokota, a foreign ministry official said.

In order to prevent a repeat, government officials have stressed the importance of carefully assessing the viability of the special committee.

But another issue will be whether the North is telling the truth when it declares the committee’s makeup, experts said.

“It will be a difficult judgment to make for Japan’s government,” said Shunji Hiraiwa, a Korean-affairs expert and professor at Kwansei Gakuin University. “Even if such organs (like the ministry of state security) lead the investigation, we don’t know whether North Korea will seriously conduct the probe.”

If the North does not conduct a full investigation as pledged, after Japan lifts part of its sanctions, Tokyo will have to reimpose the sanctions, government officials said.