A group of people trying to increase the number of “nuclear-free municipalities” in Japan is planning to visit North Korea in August to promote exchanges at a grassroots level and discuss the possibility of establishing a nuclear-free zone on the Korean Peninsula.

They hope their effort will rev up the effort to normalize ties between Japan and North Korea and bring the two countries closer together on a more personal level.

“The normalization talks seem stalled at the central government level,” said Masaru Nishida, chairman of the Nuclear-Free Zone Citizens Network Japan. “If people directly talk with each other, they would know that everybody loves peace,” he said.

Nishida believes that local governments should have their own diplomacy and that the delegation can help break the political deadlock.

The delegation being arranged by the Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization includes people from nuclear-free municipalities across Japan — 30 prefectures and 2,525 cities, towns and villages have made declarations aimed at abolishing nuclear weapons.

During the six-day trip scheduled to start in early August, the group plans to visit Pyongyang, Kesong and Panmunjom and meet with a group called Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which meets with private citizens from other countries.

Nishida, a 72-year-old literary critic and former professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, took a similar delegation to North Korea in 1987 and has been active in expanding and networking nuclear-free municipalities in Japan and abroad since the 1980s.

He hopes the second visit will lead to a sister-city arrangement between the two countries, which he believes will help pave the way to normalized bilateral relations and eventually eliminate the threat of a nuclear war in Northeast Asia.

However, some question whether local autonomy exists in North Korea, which is known for its centralized administrative framework and inscrutable power structure. In addition, there is some doubt about whether a sister-city tie can be formed with a city in North Korea if there are no official diplomatic ties between the countries.

Nishida also thought it might be difficult to discuss the issue with North Koreans, but he said that he has been encouraged by an official of the city of Kesong whom he met on his first visit and who was enthusiastic about the sister-city program.

In a separate diplomatic move, the city of Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, linked up with the city of Wonsan in what is the sole sister-city relation between the two countries, according to the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, an organization jointly run by local governments in Japan.

The ties are growing stronger thanks to marine trade, the city said.

“Now is a time of ‘global localism.’ ” Nishida said. “I am talking with chiefs of Japanese municipalities who believe that municipalities should be involved in peace-building, and asking them to form sister-city relations with cities in North Korea.”

Nishida emphasized that personal exchanges could prove to be a powerful bilateral security measure.

In discussing the building of a nuclear-free zone covering the Korean Peninsula and Japan, the delegation is planning to hold a forum with the Korean Anti-nuke Peace Committee, an organization that communicates with foreign antinuclear groups.

“In the forum, I want to confirm a joint declaration of North and South Korea (made in 1992). Then I want to ask them what they think of the idea of building a nuclear-free zone and how to establish it,” Nishida said, acknowledging that some Western countries suspect North Korea has developed a nuclear bomb.

In 1992, North and South Korea announced the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. A decade before, the late Kim Il Sung, the North’s founding father, made a joint declaration with the then Social Democratic Party of Japan in 1981 on establishing a nuclear-free zone in northeast Asia.

Currently, every country in the Southern Hemisphere is covered by at least one of several nuclear-free treaties. Although these treaties would not be fully effective unless states possessing nuclear weapons sign relevant protocols, there are growing voices in the international community to expand the zones to cover the Northern Hemisphere.

“By expanding nuclear-free zones, where countries neither own nor produce nuclear weapons, I believe we can take firm steps forward toward eliminating nuclear weapons from our planet,” Nishida said.

Following a rapid decrease in tension on the Korean Peninsula after the historic meeting in June between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Nishida hopes building a nuclear-free zone in the area will contribute to eliminating the remnants of the Cold War in Northeast Asia.

During the visit, the delegation is also planning to meet with North Korean survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese government researchers said in March that more than 900 Koreans who were exposed to radiation in the bombings in August 1945 now live in the North.

“We should urge the Japanese government to pay compensation to the victims. But to do this, we need to form diplomatic relations,” Nishida said.

Interested people can join the delegation. For more information, call Katsuaki Kimura (Japanese only), the secretariat of the delegation, at (03) 3338-3718.

Peace Boat cruise

A Japanese nongovernmental organization promoting peace, human rights and environmental issues will launch a cruise in August to both North and South Korea, according to tour organizers.

Officials of Peace Boat, which has sponsored global cruises on chartered passenger ships since 1983, said this joint visit to both North and South Korea will be the first ever.

Organizers said the ship in this voyage, with a capacity of 600, will leave Kobe port on Aug. 27 and call at Nampo in North Korea and then South Korea’s Inchon before sailing back to Tokyo on Sept. 8.

Participants in the cruise plan to visit and observe the 38th parallel from both the North and South Korean sides. The parallel is the demarcation line between North and South Korea, which are still technically at war.

Organizers said they plan to conduct exchanges with students at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies.

They also plan to hold an international conference on board about producing history textbooks common to Asia, and invite educators from countries that include the Philippines, China and Vietnam.

“Such citizen-level exchanges are crucial, precisely at a time when big issues such as history textbooks are being taken up,” said staff member Daini Nakahara.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.