The first senior-level talks held between Japan and North Korea since August 2008 have resulted in an agreement to continue discussing Pyongyang’s past abductions of Japanese nationals, despite the two sides’ vastly differing agendas.

Although a resolution of the decades-old abductee dispute is still not in sight, Japan did at least manage to make “minimum progress” on the issue, a senior Foreign Ministry official said after Japanese and North Korean officials ended two days of talks Friday in Mongolia’s frigid capital.

Another senior official at the ministry who was briefed on the meeting touted the outcome of the discussions, saying, “This is a step forward — no, two steps forward” because both sides agreed to continue dialogue over the North’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s — a key stumbling block to establishing formal diplomatic relations.

The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda quickly needs to realize significant achievements as his ruling Democratic Party of Japan heads toward a general election it is widely forecast to lose.

Impoverished North Korea, meanwhile, is counting on future economic aid from Japan to restructure its hobbled economy, and is also hoping to keep the door ajar for possible future dialogue with the U.S.

Noda’s government badly needs to make progress on the abductee dispute at a time when the DPJ-led ruling coalition, whose razor-thin majority in the Lower House had kept the government afloat until the chamber’s dissolution Friday, looks certain to be ejected from office in the Dec. 16 election.

Noda has invested so heavily in the possibility of advancing the long-stalled issue that his administration’s stance has “moved beyond the point of hope and more toward desperation,” a government source said.

Officials from the prime minister’s office expressed a strong desire to hold the talks between senior Japanese and North Korean officials in Ulan Bator, and instructed Foreign Ministry officials around late October to accelerate efforts to arrange the meeting, according to government sources.

While the ministry’s officials were concerned about the likely lack of progress on the abduction issue even if the discussions went ahead, the nudge from the prime minister’s office helped to bring about the meeting, because, according to the sources, preparations between Tokyo and Pyongyang had not gone smoothly until that point.

Though the continued consultations over Japanese abductees appear to represent some measure of progress, there is still no clear path toward a final resolution, and future inroads will now have to be made by the next government that takes power after December’s Lower House poll.

The North, for its part, appears to believe that getting Japan on board over bilateral discussions could serve as a useful diplomatic card in seeking to reopen dialogue with the United States, following President Barack Obama’s recent re-election.

“If Pyongyang thinks it can negotiate with Washington during Obama’s second term, it probably knows it must engage in talks with Japan as a precondition,” said Shunji Hiraiwa, an expert on North Korea at Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo Prefecture.

Talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang could also be useful for the North in dealing with South Korea since it views the departure in February of President Lee Myung Bak, who has taken a hardline stance toward Pyongyang, as a chance to resume discussions with Seoul.

But North Korea probably decided to sit down at the table with Japan last week mainly because it hopes to tap Tokyo’s deep pockets to resuscitate its economy, experts say.

“The North is unquestionably trying to implement so-called economic reforms. If it manages to improve relations with Japan, it might reap many advantages economically,” said Hiraiwa, adding that full-scale economic cooperation from Tokyo “is probably what Pyongyang is truly after.”

Yet such economic aid is conditional on the two sides normalizing ties under the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, a bilateral accord that committed both countries to tackling outstanding issues as they work toward establishing a formal relationship.

In a possible sign of how much Pyongyang is counting on Tokyo’s financial aid, Song Il Ho, North Korea’s official in charge of Japan-related affairs and its representative at the meeting in Mongolia, reportedly said after its conclusion Friday that both sides had agreed that the 2002 accord is a marker toward normalizing ties.

Meanwhile, relatives of Japanese abductees made emotional pleas for the long-running issue to be finally resolved so that their loved ones can be repatriated while officials from Tokyo and Pyongyang were huddling at a government facility in Ulan Bator.

“Why is our case still unresolved after 35 years?” Sakie Yokota, 76, pleaded at a gathering in the city of Niigata on Thursday, the 35th anniversary of the abduction of her daughter, Megumi Yokota, at age 13. Tokyo and the Yokota family reject Pyongyang’s claim that she committed suicide in North Korea because she was suffering from depression.

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.