North Korea’s latest promise to reinvestigate the cases of Japanese abducted by the reclusive state decades ago is a positive move from the regime, which has for years insisted that the matter has already been settled. The Japanese government needs to make sure that Pyongyang will follow through on its pledge this time by linking its responses — including lifting of sanctions or provision of humanitarian aid — to real progress in the promised probe.
According to an agreement unveiled after talks held by senior diplomats last week in Stockholm, North Korea will look again into the fate of Japanese nationals kidnapped and taken to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, and probe the cases of other missing Japanese who could also have been abducted.
Japan, meanwhile, will ease its sanctions on North Korea, which include restrictions on travel and remittances between the two countries, once the reinvestigation is started.
North Korea admitted in 2002 — during talks in Pyongyang between its then leader Kim Jong Il and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — that its agents had abducted more than a dozen Japanese. It then returned five of the abductees to Japan but insisted that the others had died. As for several other Japanese who Tokyo said had also been kidnapped to North Korea, Pyongyang said they never entered the country.
Tokyo was not convinced by the explanation, which were not backed by credible evidence, and continued to press Pyongyang to come clean on the matter. In 2008, North Korea said it would reinvestigate the Japanese abduction cases, but the promised probe has since not taken place.
North Korea’s latest offer to “conduct a comprehensive and full-scale survey for the final settlement of all issues related to Japanese” appears to mark a turnaround from its earlier position that the abduction issue had been settled.
North Korea has agreed to set up a “special investigation committee” and inform Japan of progress in the probe, and “when survivors are found” it will “take necessary measures in the direction of sending them back to Japan.”
The overture comes at a time when the North Korean regime led by Kim Jong Un — who took the country’s reins in 2011 — continues to face international isolation and sanctions over its nuclear weapon and missile programs.
It is possible that the regime is looking to use the new development in the abductions issue to break the ice in its chilly relationship with Japan.
Still, North Korea must be carefully monitored this time to see if its actions match its words. Signs have already emerged that Tokyo and Pyongyang may be reading the accord in different ways. North Korea’s ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan, Song Il Ho, who represented the country in the Stockholm talks, said the agreement covers the fate of Pyongyang’s de facto embassy building in Tokyo — a claim rejected by Japan.
Song said North Korea’s request to stop the sale of the headquarters site and building of the General Association of Korean Residents (Chongryon) — whose sale to a realtor was approved by court earlier this year after it has been put up for auction due to financial problems — is covered by Japan’s pledge in the accord to “sincerely discuss issues related to the status of (North) Korean residents in Japan.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denied the claim, saying that Japan has repeatedly told the North Korean delegates that the government cannot intervene in a case that has been handled by courts.
Japan also needs to keep the United States and South Korea fully updated on the latest developments in its relations with North Korea, and dispel concerns that possible progress on the abductions issue may result in the easing of Tokyo’s pressure on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear weapon and missile programs.