Japan softens stance on prospect of ‘chat’ with North Korea, sources say

Kyodo, Staff Report

Japan has softened its stance on talks with North Korea and now plans to take part in informal meetings that do not include substantive negotiations on Pyongyang’s nuclear arms program, government sources have said.

The shift puts Japan in line with the United States, which tried to organize high-level talks with North Korea earlier this month on the sidelines of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said that no meaningful dialogue can be held with the North until it takes concrete steps toward scrapping its nuclear arms program.

But the position now is that such a commitment would not be required to hold talks in which the parties merely exchange greetings or repeat their existing positions on issues, the sources said Monday.

The shift does not mean Japan will ease up on its campaign of raising economic and diplomatic pressure on the North. This, too, keeps Tokyo’s position consistent with that of Washington, which rolled out new unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang on Friday.

Reopening channels for dialogue with Pyongyang could potentially lead to a resumption of stalled negotiations over Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Japan will continue to refuse to take part in any dialogue that would recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, the sources added.

“North Korea will play the nuclear card in its favor (if we enter into those negotiations). The United States won’t engage in that kind of discussion either,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said in Tokyo.

The policy shift is the result of coordination between Tokyo and Washington. According to a diplomatic source, the two governments confirmed earlier this month that they will not engage in “dialogue” with North Korea but could accept a “chat.”

At that time, the United States was attempting to set up a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, while both were visiting South Korea for the Pyeongchang Games. Pence was reportedly planning to convey Washington’s intention to keep up pressure on the isolated country.

The North Korean delegation pulled out “at the last minute,” according to the U.S. State Department, but had the meeting gone ahead, it would have left Japan and the United States out of step on how to interact with the nuclear-armed country.

“If the United States and North Korea go into negotiations (on their own), Japan will be left out of the loop and the abduction issue could be abandoned,” a source close to North Korea-Japan relations said.

In a hint at the shift, Abe shook hands and briefly exchanged words with North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, at a reception dinner ahead of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony earlier this month.

“Japan believes it is important to directly communicate our thoughts to North Korea,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, said Monday.

But according to the Foreign Ministry official, there are “no plans at the present time” for further interactions between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

In Washington on Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on the prospect of talks with the North, saying that such a move would come “only under the right conditions,” a refrain that came just a day after a top official from the North said for the second time that Pyongyang was open to dialogue with Washington.

“They want to talk. And we want to talk also, only under the right conditions. Otherwise, we’re not talking,” Trump told a meeting of U.S. governors at the White House in Washington.

“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “That’s my attitude: We’ll see what happens. But something has to be done.”

Trump did not elaborate on what conditions might be needed to facilitate talks with the isolated regime of Kim Jong Un, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons would be key.

“Anything that would be discussed would have to be solely on the focus of them agreeing to denuclearize the peninsula,” Sanders said. “That would be the primary factor in whether or not we would have any conversation with them.”

Washington and Pyongyang have been at loggerheads over the denuclearization issue, with the U.S. saying any talks must be centered on that and North Korea vowing never to give up its “treasured nuclear sword.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has worked to break this impasse, holding talks this week with top North Korean representatives, including Kim Jong Chol, who is accused by Seoul of being behind the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors.

On Monday, Moon took the dramatic step of urging the United States and North Korea to each cede some ground in an attempt to broker talks.

“The United States needs to lower its bar for dialogue and the North, too, must show its willingness to denuclearize,” Moon was quoted as saying by the presidential Blue House.

“It’s important the United States and North Korea sit down together quickly,” Moon said. Such moves, he added, would be an important first step in moving toward a solution to the nuclear crisis that has roiled the Korean Peninsula and seen tensions hit fresh highs.