BEIJING – Senior Japanese and North Korean officials discussed specifics Tuesday of Pyongyang’s promised establishment of a new body that will look into its past abductions of Japanese nationals.
During the first part of their meeting in Beijing, Song Il Ho, North Korea’s top negotiator, said he would explain the organizational structure of a committee to reinvestigate the whereabouts of Japanese who Tokyo believes were abducted by Pyongyang decades ago.
But at the outset of the meeting at the North Korean Embassy, the two countries clashed over Pyongyang’s launch of two short-range ballistic missiles into waters off its east coast Sunday.
“It was extremely regrettable,” said Junichi Ihara, the head of Asian affairs at the Foreign Ministry. “On this occasion, the Japanese government will again make a strong protest” over the launch, which was in breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions against the use of ballistic missile technology.
But Song, North Korea’s ambassador in charge of normalizing diplomatic ties with Japan, said his country “has never acknowledged the resolutions” and the latest “rocket” launch by its military “did not at all affect, needless to say, regional peace and security, (nor) also international navigational order and ecology.”
North Korea’s pledge to conduct a “comprehensive and full-scale survey of all Japanese” abductees has raised the possibility of Tokyo easing some sanctions it imposed unilaterally because of North Korea’s past missile and nuclear tests.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won’t make that decision until officials have analyzed the results of the Beijing meeting, Japanese diplomats said.
After the one-day meeting, Ihara told reporters that the North Korean delegation gave him an “in-depth explanation” about the planned committee’s organizational structure and who will be responsible for it.
Ihara, however, declined to reveal details, saying he first needed to report to Abe.
While North Korea has largely been isolated by the international community, Japan said, under a major agreement reached in Stockholm in late May, it will lift some punitive measures once Pyongyang sets up what has been described as a “special investigation committee” for the survey and starts it.
Senior Japanese officials, nevertheless, have said the probe must be “trustworthy” before Japan eases any restrictions such as allowing port calls by North Korean-flagged ships and more travel between the two countries.
“What is really important is from now on,” Ihara said at the embassy. “We need to carry out the agreement steadily and make it workable.”
One key question is whether North Korea has given the committee a mandate to investigate all of its branches as it promised in the three days of negotiations through May 28 in the Swedish capital.
To assess this point, Japan is paying a great deal of attention to who will head the new panel and if it includes anyone from North Korea’s secret police or someone close to the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
If North Korea’s preparations are found to be reliable, the government will formally decide on the easing as early as by the end of this week, according to Japanese officials.
When North Korea reinvestigated the suspected abductions in 2004, it did not present Japan with convincing results, saying that gaining necessary information was difficult as special agencies were involved in the issue.
Japan officially lists 17 nationals as having been abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, but suspects their involvement in many more disappearances.
While five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002, Japan continues to seek the return of the remaining 12 people.
Of the 12, Pyongyang claims eight have died and four others never entered the country.
Japan’s plan to ease sanctions, which it imposed on North Korea for its missile and nuclear tests and not the abduction issue, has caused concerns among some countries.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Monday that “how sanctions on North Korea are lifted may have a considerable effect on a cooperative position” among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.