SHENYANG, CHINA – Japanese and North Korean diplomats have agreed to work toward resuming formal intergovernmental talks that have been halted since November 2012, an official said Thursday.
If resumed, the talks would also mark the first time since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inherited power after the death of his father in December 2012.
The agreement was reached during informal talks between diplomats on the sidelines of a two-day meeting of the countries’ Red Cross societies that started Wednesday in the Chinese city of Shenyang, the Japanese official said on condition of anonymity.
Keiichi Ono, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Northeast Asia Division, and Ryu Song Il, chief of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Japanese affairs section, agreed to move toward restarting the talks “as soon as possible” to address “a range of issues,” the official said.
The abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, are expected to top the agenda during future intergovernmental negotiations.
At a November 2012 meeting in Mongolia, Japanese and North Korean officials agreed to hold another round of negotiations at a director-general level the following month in Beijing.
But Japan put it off in the wake of North Korea’s move to launch an “Earth-observation satellite,” a move seen by some as a covert test of long-range missile technology in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The now-envisaged negotiations would also be at a director-general level. Junichi Ihara, head 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, are expected to lead the delegations.
Abe has said he is committed to resolving the abduction issue, which remains a major obstacle to normalizing bilateral ties with North Korea.
The agreement between the diplomats in the Chinese city was made after the parents of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese national who was abducted by North Korea more than three decades ago, were able last week to see their granddaughter for the first time.
The parents, seen as a symbol of the long-festering abduction issue, were allowed by North Korea to secretly meet Yokota’s daughter, Kim Eun Gyong, in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator for five days following the previous informal talks between Ono and Ryu on the sidelines of a March 3 Red Cross meeting in Shenyang.
Yokota went missing on her way home from school in 1977 when she was 13 years old. No new information about her whereabouts was given during the time her parents spent with their 26-year-old granddaughter and her family.
North Korea admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese nationals. Five of them were later repatriated, but Pyongyang has claimed the remaining eight, including Yokota, are dead.
Japan has insisted that North Korea has yet to provide credible evidence regarding the fate of the eight abductees. But Pyongyang has repeatedly said that the issue is settled.
The government has identified 17 Japanese nationals as victims of abductions by the North and believes there are even more cases.
Abe has given high priority to resolving the abduction issue while struggling to establish friendly ties with China and South Korea since taking office in December 2012.
In dire need of economic aid, North Korea has recently signaled its willingness to re-engage in diplomacy in a slight easing of tensions with other countries in the region.
Pyongyang may call on Tokyo to remove sanctions it has placed on the country in return for promising to reinvestigate the abduction issue.