ULAN, BATOR – Japan and North Korea ended the first day of their senior working-level talks in Mongolia on Thursday evening and agreed to continue consultations Friday, a Japanese official said, with the thorny issue of Pyongyang’s past abductions of Japanese nationals still in focus.
The discussions may gain little headway, however, given the likelihood of the North postponing any firm commitments as Japan enters a period of political uncertainty, with a Lower House election scheduled to be held in mid-December.
The meeting in Ulan Bator involved Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and Song Il Ho, North Korea’s official in charge of Japanese affairs and ambassador for talks to normalize bilateral relations.
It was the first time the two countries have held negotiations at such a senior level since August 2008.
“I will do my best and work hard” to make progress during the negotiations, Sugiyama told reporters in Ulan Bator prior to the talks.
Tokyo is seeking to turn the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s into one of the meeting’s key agenda items, and to hold more senior working-level sessions down the road by setting up a formal framework for bilateral consultations.
At a meeting held in Beijing in August between lower-ranking Foreign Ministry officials from Tokyo and Pyongyang, the two sides agreed to include wide-ranging issues of mutual interest on the agenda for this week’s discussions, although they didn’t specify what would be included.
In the latest negotiations, Japan plans to ask North Korea about its August 2008 pledge to reinvestigate the fate of certain abductees whom Pyongyang claims are deceased — a promise the North later backed out of and declared fully resolved.
For its part, Pyongyang is expected to raise what it terms “humanitarian matters,” including the exhumation and return of the remains of Japanese nationals who died in northern regions of the Korean Peninsula during and near the 1945 end of Japan’s colonial rule. The participants are also expected to touch on the repatriation of elderly Japanese women who accompanied their ethnic Korean husbands to North Korea after the end of World War II.
The abductee issue has proven one of the biggest stumbling blocks to establishing formal diplomatic ties between the two countries.
The North argues the matter has already been settled, including the case of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted at age 13 and whom Pyongyang has claimed is dead, but this account is strongly disputed by Yokota’s parents.
No tangible movement has been seen on the long-standing issue since North Korea returned five abductees to Japan in 2002.
August’s meeting in Beijing allowed the first intergovernmental talks to be held under North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, last December. Earlier that month, Red Cross officials from the two countries had reached agreement on the collection and repatriation of the Japanese remains in the North.
Ex-Upper House member Antonio Inoki and Nippon Sport Science University officials have attended a friendship soccer match between the academic institution and a college in Pyongyang.
Jang Song Thaek, who is thought to wield considerable clout as the uncle of North Korean chief Kim Jong Un, accompanied the Japanese delegates to Wednesday’s game at Kim Il Sung Stadium. Jang serves as vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and also heads the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission.
Inoki, a former professional wrestler who has nurtured ties with the reclusive country for years, met with Jang ahead of the game, which ended in a scoreless draw, and exchanged opinions on a variety of issues.