PYONGYANG – Japanese and North Korean university students discussed thorny issues such as Pyongyang’s past abductions of Japanese nationals in the North’s capital last week, resuming an annual exchange program that had been canceled the previous year amid easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In the program, organized by a Tokyo-based civic group since 2012, students of the two countries expressed hope to improve bilateral relations while also touching on North Korea’s nuclear arms development as well as reparations for Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Six Japanese students from the University of Tokyo, Ritsumeikan University and four other schools met with eight North Korean students majoring in the Japanese language at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies during the three-day event through Friday.
The participants conversed with each other while sightseeing in the capital and eating lunch.
The exchange was halted last year as tensions escalated after North Korean missile tests. But it was restarted after a series of diplomatic developments, including the historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.
Ham Jin Hui, an 18-year-old student at the North Korean university who likes Japanese animation, had a smartphone cover with the image of a Japanese anime character.
After hearing about trends and school life in Japan from Sae Tao, a 19-year-old student at International Christian University in Tokyo, Ham said, “I was worried about meeting people from an adversary state but, after talking with them, now I feel they are our fellows.”
Among the most hotly debated topics was how to build trust. In a session held on the final day, the students touched on outstanding issues between Japan and North Korea.
Taiga Miyauchi, 23, from Nihon University, said, “There are families awaiting the return of those kidnapped. (North Korea) should keep the promise of reinvestigating (their whereabouts).”
In May 2014, North Korea agreed to reinvestigate the whereabouts of missing Japanese citizens the rogue state was believed to have kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s. But the country announced the suspension of its probe in February 2016 after Japan tightened sanctions against Pyongyang over a de facto long-range ballistic missile launch and nuclear test.
Responding to Miyauchi, Pak Yu, a 22-year-old North Korean, said, “It’s wrong to bring up an issue which is already resolved. We can’t talk about the future if Japan doesn’t compensate for what it did the past.”
Ham added, “I think there’s information that is not shared by the two countries,” while 20-year-old So Dae Gon of the Pyongyang university said, “It’s important to repeat exchanges and share memories in order to correctly understand (each other).”
“Impacted by developments such as the U.S.-North Korea talks, North Korean students were trying to find common ground rather than one-sidedly insisting on their stance,” said Kazumi Mizumoto, deputy chief of the Hiroshima Peace Institute at Hiroshima City University, who accompanied the students.