Staff writer For better or worse, future historians may characterize 2000 as a pivotal point in Japan’s foreign policy toward its hermetic neighbor, North Korea. This is mainly because one of Japan’s long-standing diplomatic issues — normalization talks with Pyongyang — is likely to enter a critical phase this year. Last month, the two countries finally began to tiptoe toward resuming normalization talks, but it remains to be seen how long this fragile arrangement can last. Japanese-North Korean relations entered a new phase last month after a nonpartisan Diet delegation led by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama visited Pyongyang from Dec. 1 to 3. The Murayama delegation paved the way toward holding two landmark meetings in Beijing: one between the two countries’ Red Cross Societies over humanitarian concerns and another between the two governments on preliminary discussions to resume normalization talks, for the first time in almost seven years. The Red Cross delegates agreed the Japanese side would urge Tokyo to quickly provide food aid to Pyongyang “from a humanitarian standpoint,” while the North Koreans would request a relevant institution to launch a “serious search” for missing Japanese believed abducted by North Korean agents. The two governments concluded their preliminary talks in Beijing after agreeing to meet again possibly this month to lay the groundwork for full-fledged normalization negotiations. Despite what seems to be an improvement in relations, Japanese policymakers remain cautious about reading too much into the recent development. “The Murayama mission achieved a breakthrough in our deadlocked relations and enabled our first governmental encounter in recent years to take place,” Foreign Minister Yohei Kono told a news conference. “But that doesn’t mean we will be able to immediately launch normalization talks.” Regarding food aid, Kono said a proper environment for Japan to make such a move has yet to be created, noting Tokyo must “comprehensively analyze North Korea’s reactions to the humanitarian concerns Japan has addressed.” The road leading to the normalization talks may still be rocky, as indicated by the announcement earlier this week by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency that a Japanese man was detained in early December for spying on the reclusive state. Behind Japan’s stance is a foreign policy dilemma caused by two different objectives Tokyo must pursue simultaneously: settling individual problems while reducing tension, and ensuring stability on the Korean Peninsula. “Since we are concerned about public opinion regarding our foreign policy, we will continue to pursue the suspected abductions by North Korea,” said a senior ministry official who declined to be named. “But we must avoid the worst-case scenario — North Korea backing away from engagement with Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.” North Korea’s agreement with Washington last year on a missile moratorium, for example, came as a result of concerted efforts by the three countries to peacefully engage Pyongyang in the international community. As long as any advancement in Japanese-North Korean negotiations is measured by progress in the abduction issue, however, Japan should be ready for “a tough road ahead,” the official said.In fact, Japan and North Korea broke off normalization talks — which had lasted for nearly two years — in late 1992 due to Pyongyang’s refusal to provide information, despite repeated requests by Tokyo, on a Japanese woman believed kidnapped by North Korean agents and taken to the Stalinist state. Tokyo believes that some 10 Japanese have been abducted by Pyongyang to date, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s. North Korea calls these claims groundless. Such concerns were also voiced when the government decided Dec. 14 to lift a ban on food aid as well as the suspension of normalization talks — the last remaining sanctions imposed on North Korea after it test-fired a missile over Japan in August 1998. Before approving the government’s decision, some members of the Liberal Democratic Party had reportedly argued that food aid should not be resumed without assurances of progress on the abduction issue. Against this backdrop, the government has maintained a low profile in advancing normalization negotiations. “We cannot rule out the possibility that normalization talks might be disrupted again due to negotiations centering on food aid and the abductions,” the official said.

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