BEIJING - North Korea has become open to discussing the abduction issue with Japan again and the two countries agreed Monday in Beijing to carry on with governmental talks.
During the first formal negotiations in more than a year, Japan appears to have demanded North Korea reinvestigate the whereabouts of the Japanese that its spies abducted decades ago and allow all of them to return home.
North Korea, which admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese, has repeatedly described the issue as settled after allowing five of the abductees to return to Japan and declaring the rest dead.
But Junichi Ihara, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau and head of the Japanese delegation, told reporters after the two-day meeting that North Korea “did not at all appear to reject discussions” on the issue.
Ihara and counterpart Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for talks on normalizing ties with Japan, sat at the negotiating table for about 8½ hours as the two “fully” discussed the abduction issue, a member of the Japanese delegation said on condition of anonymity.
Japan officially lists 17 people as having been abducted by North Korea but suspects Pyongyang’s involvement in many more disappearances.
Only five of the 17 and their families have been returned to Japan. North Korea says the remaining eight of 13 originally listed abductees are dead.
North Korea once promised in 2008 to reinvestigate the fate of the Japanese it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, but has failed to deliver.
While Ihara also urged North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile development programs, Song called on Tokyo to lift the sanctions it unilaterally imposed on Pyongyang, according to the delegation member.
Among other agenda items, Song asked Japan to “settle its past,” or compensate for the suffering of the Korean people under Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, the member said.
The two countries, which have no diplomatic relations, will discuss the timing of the next round of talks through their embassies in Beijing, where the latest discussions took place.
The first formal talks since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government was formed in December 2012 were held amid recent mixed signals from North Korea over its willingness to re-engage in diplomacy.
North Korea is blending increasingly conciliatory gestures toward Japan with provocative actions targeting, in particular, South Korea and the United States.
In yet another move that has escalated tensions, North Korea conducted a live-fire drill Monday near its disputed sea boundary with South Korea in the Yellow Sea that triggered retaliatory shelling from Seoul after some of its ordnance apparently crossed the border. No one was injured.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan was negotiating the abduction, nuclear and missile issues with North Korea “in line with our country’s basic policy.”
Under the policy of “dialogue and pressure,” Japan, in collaboration with the United States and South Korea, is trying to comprehensively resolve the abduction issue and get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Ihara said he lodged a firm protest against North Korea’s launch of two Rodong medium-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan last week.
He also called for restraint by North Korea after it threatened Sunday to conduct a “new form of nuclear test” in response to a U.N. Security Council condemnation issued after Pyongyang’s test-firing of the missiles.