Japan and North Korea on Aug. 31 ended three days of talks in Beijing and agreed to hold a new round of talks, which will be upgraded with the participation of bureau chiefs of each country’s foreign ministry. The Beijing talks were the first held by the two countries in four years and the first since Mr. Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
It is hoped that both countries will establish a permanent channel for official communications that can serve as a basis for solving bilateral problems ranging from the North’s nuclear weapons program to the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents. For the next round of talks, both sides agreed to take up topics that interest both sides. Apart from the North’s nuclear weapons program, the abduction of Japanese nationals is the most important issue for Japan.
Tokyo could not get a clear promise from Pyongyang that the abduction issue would be taken up at the next talks. Tokyo should strive to persuade Pyongyang to discuss this issue. It is especially important to remind Pyongyang of the August 2008 agreement to establish a joint committee to investigate the abduction issue in exchange for a partial lifting of Japan’s economic sanctions against the North.
Ten years ago, in September 2002, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang for the first time. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il apologized for the abduction and Mr. Koizumi came back to Japan with five Japanese nationals who had been abducted. But 12 other Japanese abductees, including Ms. Megumi Yokota, are still unaccounted for. Although the North insists that Ms. Yokota is dead, reports exist that she is still alive. In addition, there are about 470 missing Japanese nationals who may have also been abducted by North Korean agents.
The Beijing talks followed Aug. 9-10 talks held in China’s capital between the North Korean Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross Society on the repatriation of the remains of some 22,000 Japanese who died on the Korean Peninsula shortly before or after the end of World War II. Since North Korea has brought the humanitarian issue to the fore, Japan should utilize this opportunity to press for progress in the resolution of the abduction issue.
North Korea may be trying to obtain economic aid from Japan in exchange for the return of the remains. The Noda administration should not push for quick results in the talks; instead it should maintain a resolute attitude toward the nuclear weapons program and abduction issues. At the same time, it must be wise enough to adopt a flexible approach when the right moment arrives.