North Korea has warned that it may suspend the governmental talks with Japan, saying that the negotiations are facing difficulties. This is clearly Pyongyang’s reaction to Tokyo’s decision at the end of March to extend its trade embargo and other unilateral sanctions for two years, as well as to the police raid on the home of the head of pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, in connection with alleged smuggling of matsutake mushrooms from the reclusive state. North Korea has also accused Japan of “internationalizing” the issue of its abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s by having the U.N. Human Rights Council adopt a resolution criticizing the country’s human rights situation.
The warning about a possible cessation of the talks is a diplomatic tactic to sway Japan. Pyongyang has often repeated this kind of tactic to get concessions from the other side of negotiations, including South Korea and the United States. Tokyo should respond to Pyongyang’s latest move in a cool-headed manner.
Last May, Japan and North Korea resumed official talks, which had been suspended since November 2012. In the deal struck in Stockholm on the guiding principles for the talks, North Korea promised to conduct a comprehensive survey of all Japanese in the country, including a probe into the fate of the abduction victims, in exchange for Tokyo lifting some of its unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang.
This time, North Korea avoided making statements that could lead to a complete halt to the negotiations. Instead it said that the U.N. resolution and the police raid on the home of Chongryon chief have made it difficult for it to continue talks with Japan. It also said that it is faithfully implementing the agreement struck in Stockholm. The government should pay close attention to the language used by North Korea when considering its response.
A vicious circle of Japan stepping up its pressure against North Korea and Pyongyang reacting strongly to such moves marks the recent history of bilateral relations between the two countries. This has left both parties empty-handed. The abduction issue remains unresolved for Japan, and North Korea is no closer to normalizing bilateral ties with Tokyo. Both countries should strive to break this cycle.
The abductees’ families are suffering from the stalemate. North Korea should realize that carrying out its promised probe into the abductions is the best way to break the impasse and gain Japan’s trust, thereby leading to a mutually beneficial conclusion to the talks.
It appears that North Korea intends to first carry out probes into Japanese who remained in North Korea after World War II, the remains of Japanese who died in North Korea in the chaos at the end of the war and Japanese women who came to North Korea with their Korean husbands from the 1950s to 1984 — all humanitarian issues whose handling is unlikely to stir ill-feelings in Japan. Pyongyang may fear that the results that the abduction investigation would produce could cause a negative reaction on the part of Japan, but the Stockholm accord calls for simultaneous probes into all the issues involving Japanese in North Korea, including the those who were kidnapped by North Korean agents.
Pyongyang should deliver the first report on its probe of the abduction victims as quickly as possible. Reports that fail to address this issue will only harden Tokyo’s attitude. Still, delivering the report is only the first small step toward resolving the issue. Only when North Korea answers the questions raised by Japan about the report will prospects for a solution emerge.