Japan and North Korea on Wednesday began intergovernmental talks for the first time in four years to mainly discuss the retrieval of the remains of Japanese nationals who died in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula during the war.
At the working-level meeting in Beijing, attention is focused on whether the two countries will address other pending issues, with Tokyo hoping to seize the opportunity to reopen talks on the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea decades ago, a major obstacle to normalizing bilateral ties.
Japanese officials said they are closely watching how North Korea responds to its calls for a reinvestigation into the cases of Japanese abductees.
The two countries agreed on a reinvestigation when they last met in August 2008, but the North unilaterally broke off the deal.
The meeting is the first official contact under the government of the Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power in 2009, and the leadership of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December.
The catalyst for the resumption of government-level talks was a meeting between the countries’ Red Cross officials earlier this month on the retrieval of the remains of Japanese who died during the closing stages of the war, of Japan’s colonial rule and in the confusion following both.
Based on Japanese government data, around 34,600 Japanese are believed to have died of hunger and disease during the period in what is now North Korea. The remains of around 21,600 people are said to still lie there.
The intergovernmental talks are likely to take place for two days in the capital of China, a close ally of North Korea. They have been characterized as “preliminary consultations” to fix the agenda and how to proceed on issues ahead of full-fledged talks between Japan and North Korea, which do not maintain diplomatic ties.
Tokyo, which is seeking to resolve the abduction issue as well as press Pyongyang to curb its nuclear arms and ballistic missile threats, has been looking into how to resume dialogue with North Korea before the 10th anniversary of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s landmark visit to Pyongyang and summit there in September 2002 with the late Kim Jong Il.
North Korea maintains no abductees remain alive in the hermit state and thus that issue is settled, but Japan has urged a reinvestigation, including the case of Megumi Yokota, whose parents have long championed the cause of the abductees’ relatives.
Japan recognizes 17 nationals — including five who were repatriated as a result of Koizumi’s two 2002 North Korea trips — as having been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We will engage in talks with the understanding that the abduction issue will of course be part of the various issues between Japan and North Korea,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said in a news conference Tuesday.
Japan will be represented by Keiichi Ono, director of the Northeast Asia Division of the Foreign Ministry, after North Korea asked the talks to be conducted at the working level, not the director general level as sought by Japan.
During the negotiations, the officials may also discuss how to deal with the return of Japanese wives who moved with their Korean spouses to North Korea under a repatriation project from 1959 and the return of Japanese hijackers of a Japan Airlines jetliner in 1970.
Seeking quick resolution
A senior North Korean historian expressed hope Wednesday that Japan and North Korea will swiftly address the issue of the retrieval of the remains of Japanese nationals who died in what is now North Korea around the end of World War II.
“Humanitarian and historical issues such as the remains issue should be addressed swiftly between authorities of the two countries,” Jo Hui Sung, director of the Institute of History at the Academy of Social Sciences, said in a group interview in Pyongyang.
Jo called for a “sincere attitude” by Japan in addressing the issue, saying, “As the issue involves remains of Japanese nationals, it is a matter of the Japanese side, not our problem.”
He said it is possible that scholars from the two countries will conduct joint research at sites Pyongyang says contain the remains of Japanese.
Pyongyang turned its attention to the issue in October 2010 when about 100 human remains were found during construction of an expressway in South Hamgyong Province, according to the scholar.
Japanese records, field studies and accounts by local residents led him to determine the remains are those of Japanese nationals. At the same time, North Korea has grown concerned that such burial sites could pose an obstacle to development projects in the country.
Jo, who led research on the issue, said he has so far confirmed five burial sites — two in the vicinity of Pyongyang, two in the eastern province of South Hamgyong and one in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong.
He disclosed photographs of human bones and items such as clothes, buttons and pieces of pottery that he said had been found at some of the sites.
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