Japan and North Korea will hold talks in Beijing from Monday, with the focus of discussions likely to be on North Korean demands for compensation for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The countries are expected to enter substantial negotiations on normalizing ties over the two days of deliberations after clarifying their basic positions in the last two rounds of talks this year, Japanese government officials said.
“Both sides presented their positions in the previous two rounds of talks and now we must find common points,” Foreign Minister Yohei Kono told a news conference Friday. The talks in Beijing will be the 11th session held between the two countries. Japan and North Korea resumed dialogue in April for the first time in 71/2 years, before meeting again in August.
Ambassador Kojiro Takano will head Japan’s nine-member negotiating team, while Ambassador Jong Thae Hwa will lead the North Korean side, tentatively set at seven people.
The main sticking points are North Korea’s compensation demands and Japan’s request for cooperation from Pyongyang in locating Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by North Korean agents.
Jong, who arrived in Beijing on Saturday for the talks, told reporters that North Korea will demand an apology and compensation from Japan during the discussions.
“Whether the talks make progress depends on Japan’s attitude,” he said.
Japan has rejected the notion of wartime compensation, saying Japan and North Korea were not at war in colonial times.
But in the last round of talks in August, Japan offered to extend economic help to North Korea as an alternative to compensation — as it did when it normalized relations with South Korea in 1965.
Although the offer falls well short of North Korea’s demands, Japanese officials have said privately that they may be able to eventually resolve the dispute, provided the amount is right.
“North Korea is interested more in the content than the pretext. In other words, the question of how much we are prepared to pay,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry source said. “If the amount is right, we should be able to agree on an ambiguous settlement,” the source said.
The two countries are also sharply divided on the alleged abductions of Japanese nationals.
Japan claims 10 Japanese were abducted by North Korean agents in seven incidents in the 1970s and 1980s. North Korea denies the allegations, despite promising to search for the Japanese as “missing persons.”
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has promised the Japanese public that his government will not sidestep the abduction issue in its talks with North Korea, with the Japanese team set to take up the issue again during Monday’s negotiations.
Mori sparked a furor in Japan when he told British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a conference in Seoul last week that a Japanese delegation had suggested to North Korean officials in 1997 that the issue could be resolved if the missing Japanese were “found” somewhere outside North Korea.
The comments provoked vehement protests from critics, who said the plan would leave the question of who was responsible for the kidnappings unanswered.
Japan is also expected to reiterate its concern over North Korea’s missile program. Little progress is expected in this regard, however, as North Korea appears unwilling to hold specific discussions on the issue, the Japanese officials said.
Since the August talks, Japan has decided to send 500,000 tons of rice aid to North Korea this year and next year in a bid to boost the chances of a breakthrough. North Korea has been suffering from severe food shortages.
The bilateral talks come at a time when North Korea appears to be headed toward warmer ties with Japan’s allies, South Korea and the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright earlier this week became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit North Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War. She had lengthy talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Japan has repeatedly said that all three tracks of bilateral talks should reinforce one another, but seems to be concerned that North Korea may concentrate its energies on relations with the United States at the expense of dialogue with Japan.
North Korea may not be enthusiastic enough about negotiating with Japan at a time when it appears to be making progress in talks with the U.S., a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.
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