One of the problems the Japanese government has to contend with in its dealings with North Korea is the fact there is interaction between the two countries that it can’t control, such as that which travels over the airwaves. Being a totalitarian dictatorship, North Korea doesn’t have the same problem, but it nevertheless did something about the airwaves. In April 2003, Pyongyang became a signatory to the Berne Convention, a treaty that governs international copyrights for broadcasts, which means members must pay other members for use of their signals.

The Japanese media, in particular the sensationalist “wide shows,” have taken full advantage of the public’s interest in the weird goings-on in North Korea by freely downloading news footage by state-run broadcast entity KRT from satellite broadcasts. Pyongyang now wants the stations to pay (about 50,000 yen per minute, to be exact), but Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency says they don’t have to, because Japan does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

The TV networks think it’s their decision to make. According to the Asahi Shimbun, TBS says it will pay copyright fees from now on to an agency that North Korea has set up in Japan especially for such purposes. NHK and TV Tokyo claim that they don’t need to pay because they use such footage only for “news purposes.” Fuji TV is still studying the matter, and Nippon TV has declined to comment.

TV Asahi, however, is already paying the fees under a special contract it has with North Korea. This relationship probably explains why journalist Soichiro Tahara was able to go to Pyongyang shortly after the bilateral talks that took place between North Korea and Japan in Beijing on Aug. 11 in order to interview two of the North’s top officials about the “abductee problem” — the major obstacle to normalization.

The interviews, which were shown on TV Asahi’s “Sunday Project” on Aug. 15, didn’t reveal any new information about the abductees, but they did reveal something about the Japan-North Korea dialogue.

Tahara, a veteran television journalist, is a bit of a blowhard when he sits in the interviewer’s chair. His no-nonsense style has more to do with his idea of the tough reporter than it does with extracting meaningful information. During the pension debacle last spring he plowed into politicians who hadn’t paid their premiums, demanding they apologize and thus missing the whole point of the scandal, which was that the system is broken.

But his bulldog demeanor made sense in Pyongyang. He managed to stretch his allotted 15 minutes with Foreign Ministry official Chon Tae Wha to an hour, during which time he made Chon clarify what his government was and was not doing to produce the 10 Japanese abductees that Japan says are still in North Korea.

Following the talks in Beijing, Akitaka Saiki, the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asia chief, expressed anger toward the North for having done nothing about the 10, even though the talks were said to have been conducted in a “friendly” atmosphere. Tahara interpreted this paradox to mean that Saiki knew beforehand the North would not offer any new information, but couldn’t possibly say that to the press and so acted disappointed.

Consequently, Tahara conducted his interviews as if his North Korean interlocutors were not talking to the Japanese government or even to the Japanese media, but rather to Japanese citizens. “Five million people are watching this,” he said to Chon, indicating the camera behind him. To Song Il Ho, Chon’s boss, he said, “Why don’t you use me to alleviate Japanese public concern?”

Of course, no one in Japan is going to take anything these two men say at face value, but Tahara was being sincere. This was a great opportunity to cut through all the diplomatic niceties that obscure the truth, which Tahara felt was being avoided as much by Japan as it was by North Korea.

Predictably, the two North Koreans dissembled their butts off, but for once we got to see them squirm. Chon never referred to the “abductee problem” (rachi mondai); only that his government was collecting “information about dead people” (shibo joho), thus clarifying his government’s position that, even if the North is “sincerely looking into the matter” of the 10 abductees, it is working from the premise that these eight people (Pyongyang claims two never entered their country) are already dead. Nevertheless, Tahara got Chon to promise on camera to continue with the search “at the risk of [his] own life.”

Tahara’s statement in the “Sunday Project” studio that he believed the two men “wanted to convey how seriously they are working [on the abduction problem],” struck his guests, which included relatives of abductees and Tokyo’s hardline governor, Shintaro Ishihara, as wishful thinking. To Tahara, just getting the interviews was a journalistic coup, and he wanted to believe that they resulted in some kind of scoop. (This desire to make the visit more significant than it was may have been intensified by the sad fact that Tahara’s cancer-stricken wife died while he was in Pyongyang.)

If it didn’t look like a scoop to anyone else, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a worthwhile interview. Part of the appeal of TV journalism is showing the public something it hasn’t seen before, and the sight of these two North Korean officials cornered and forced to make statements off the tops of their heads had its own unique appeal. You’ll never see that on KRT.