BEIJING – At their first formal talks since November 2012, senior Japanese and North Korean diplomats on Sunday agreed to work toward settling “outstanding issues” impeding bilateral ties.
The meeting, to end Monday in Beijing, was held amid mixed signals from North Korea over its willingness to re-engage in diplomacy. At issue is whether the North will agree to fulfill its promise to reinvestigate what happened to the Japanese it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for talks on normalizing relations with Japan, compared the resumption of governmental dialogue to the arrival of spring, “when icy rivers melt and water begins to flow.”
Junichi Ihara, director-general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Foreign Ministry, said that “through serious and frank discussions” he wants to “work toward making progress on the settlement of outstanding issues.”
“I completely feel the same way,” Song replied at the North Korean Embassy, the venue for the first day of the talks, expressing hope that relations between the two will start moving in a positive direction.
After the first day of talks ended, Ihara said he had “earnest and frank” talks with Song but did not reveal any details of their four-hour meeting.
In an attempt to make tangible progress on the abduction issue, Japan may have called for reopening the cases while alluding to the possibility of lifting sanctions it unilaterally imposed over its nuclear and missile development programs.
Japan appeared ready to say that it may consider gradually lifting some of the sanctions, such as the entry ban on North Koreans, if the North agrees to follow through. Pyongyang has never lived up to its 2008 promise to reinvestigate the abduction issue.
“I will try to take every opportunity to continue a substantial exchange of views” with North Korea, Ihara said.
But it all remains uncertain if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, formed in December 2012, can make progress in his goal of achieving a breakthrough in the festering issue, a major obstacle to normalizing bilateral relations.
North Korea, which admitted in 2002 to abducting 13 Japanese, has repeatedly declared the issue settled after allowing some of the abductees to return to Japan in the early 2000s. No tangible progress has been seen on the issue since five Japanese were repatriated in 2002.
North Korea has claimed the remaining eight are dead.
Japan, which has 17 people on its official list of abduction victims, has accused North Korea of not providing credible evidence about the whereabouts of the eight and believes there are many more similar cases.
The eight include Megumi Yokota, who went missing on her way home from school in 1977, when she was 13.
The Beijing talks materialized after a series of behind-the-scenes contacts between diplomats of the two countries from December and a secret meeting earlier this month in Mongolia between Yokota’s daughter and parents, who have been at the forefront of the movement to resolve the abduction issue.
Japan appears ready to tell North Korea it may consider gradually lifting some of the sanctions, such as an entry ban, if the reinvestigation is carried out. Those sanctions are bilateral measures enforced by Japan rather than those imposed by the international community targeting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Japan, however, could face difficult decisions as North Korea has given no indication of stopping its nuclear and missile development.
During Sunday’s talks, Ihara is also believed to have lodged a protest against North Korea’s test-firing of two Rodong medium-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday.
North Korea’s test-firing of medium-range missiles, the first since 2009, was later condemned by the U.N. Security Council. During the two-day talks, Japan will also lodge a protest against the test-firing, according to Japanese officials. In the previous formal talks in November 2012 in Ulan Bator, Japan and North Korea had agreed to hold another round of governmental talks in December that year in Beijing.
But Japan postponed them due to North Korea’s move to launch an “Earth observation satellite,” which was seen by other countries as a covert test of long-range missile technology in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions