Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s scheduled meeting Monday in Seoul with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung comes at a crucial point in Japan’s efforts to advance normalization negotiations with North Korea.

Mori will leave for Seoul on Monday morning for a one-day visit and talks with Kim, and Japanese officials see the bilateral summit as a significant opportunity for Tokyo and Seoul to coordinate their policies on Pyongyang ahead of an unprecedented summit next month between the two Koreas.

During their talks, Mori is likely to “encourage President Kim to make the upcoming North-South summit a success,” a Foreign Ministry official said.

The South Korean president and his northern counterpart, Kim Jong Il, are scheduled to meet June 12-14 in Pyongyang. The two sides have held five rounds of preparatory talks so far.

Mori and Kim are also expected to endorse Pyongyang’s recent moves to improve its relations with the international community, including its establishment of diplomatic relations with Italy in January and with Australia earlier this month.

North Korea has also applied for membership of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a security dialogue forum in the region. The ARF is likely to formally approve Pyongyang’s bid at its ministerial meeting in July.

On bilateral issues, Mori and Kim are expected to review progress in a wide range of Tokyo-Seoul cooperation programs and reaffirm their commitment to successfully jointly hosting the 2002 World Cup soccer finals, the official said.

For Japan, the meeting between Mori and Kim coincides with difficulties that Japan is experiencing in advancing normalization negotiations with North Korea.

Last month in Pyongyang, the two countries’ talks on normalizing diplomatic relations were resumed for the first time in almost eight years and the next round of talks was scheduled to take place last week in Japan.

The two sides, however, decided to postpone the session without setting any timetable for new talks, reportedly due to a failure in determining the issues to be dealt with.

Japanese officials are consequently attaching great importance to the Mori-Kim meeting and see it as an opportunity for Mori to address Japan’s concerns over the delayed normalization talks before Kim visits Pyongyang.

Mori, however, will not ask Kim to convey Japan’s commitment to normalization talks to North Korea’s leader at the inter-Korean summit, a senior Japanese official said.

“Nonetheless, the North-South summit may touch on Pyongyang’s external relations, including its relations with Japan,” the official said. “Thus, it is important for Prime Minister Mori to fully explain Japan’s commitment to normalization talks to President Kim.”

The likelihood of further Tokyo-Pyongyang negotiations remains unclear for the time being. While there have been concerns that talks might become bogged down, as they did in late 1992, another official say postponement of the negotiations should not necessarily be taken as a negative sign.

“As far as we can tell from our experience in the past, anything could happen in dealing with North Korea,” the official said.

Unless government-level discussions make progress, it appears likely that separate talks between the two countries’ Red Cross societies on humanitarian concerns will also remain stalled.

At the center of Japan’s humanitarian concerns lies the issue of the alleged abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents; Tokyo believes that a total of 10 Japanese were abducted during the 1970s and the 1980s.

North Korea, however, has only expressed its intention to “take appropriate steps if it locates any missing Japanese nationals.”

Hajime Izumi, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Shizuoka, points out that Tokyo-Pyongyang dialogue is unlikely to make progress until the upcoming North-South summit is over.

“It is believed that North Korea wants to use the North-South summit to exert leverage on Japan,” he said. “Pyongyang may be expecting Seoul to endorse part of its demand for Tokyo to apologize and pay economic compensation for the last war.”

When Japan normalized relations with South Korea in 1965, Tokyo provided a lump-sum economic cooperation package to Seoul, although the nature of the package was not described as “reparations.”

Regarding the apology, Japan and South Korea issued a joint statement in October 1998 in Tokyo, which clarified Japan’s apology to the Korean people for its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. It was the first time that Tokyo expressed remorse and apologized for historical events in a document.

“In light of these steps Japan has taken toward South Korea, Kim has reason to sympathize with North Korea’s demand for similar measures,” Izumi said.

The gap between the North Korean side’s demand and Japan’s position on the matter, however, would appear to be unbridgeable, because Japan has argued that it is not liable to pay “reparations” to North Korea as colonial rule is not a state of war in legal terms.

In these circumstances, Japan can only hope that the results of the upcoming inter-Korean summit will ease tensions, as any positive outcome is likely to have a major impact on advancing Japan-North Korea negotiations, Izumi said.