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Moves toward a thaw in relations between Japan and North Korea have been gaining momentum since a Japanese parliamentary group headed by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and the ruling Workers Party of Korea last week agreed on the need to resume the long-stalled normalization talks at an early date.

The Japanese government is now poised to announce as soon as this week the lifting of remaining sanctions against North Korea and an early resumption of bilateral talks on establishing diplomatic ties between the two nations. Upon receiving a report from the Murayama mission, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi on Sunday gave instructions along these lines to Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, who had just returned from the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

It is welcome that the governments of the two nations are now prepared to sit down at the negotiating table for the first time in seven years. However, the road ahead looks bumpy. We can only hope that the prospective dialogue will lead eventually to the establishment of diplomatic relations.

In recent months, North Korea has made a number of conciliatory moves toward Japan. In August, in an unusual government statement, Pyongyang expressed a willingness to discuss normalization, albeit on the condition that Tokyo offer “honest apologies” and make “full compensation” for its past actions. During subsequent talks with the United States, North Korea also pledged not to test-fire another missile over Japan. In response, the Japanese government lifted the ban on chartered flights, part of the sanctions imposed in August last year after North Korea lobbed its first Taepodong ballistic missile over the Japanese archipelago.

South Korea, meanwhile, has been pushing its “sunshine policy” toward North Korea since President Kim Dae Jung took office, while the U.S. has already eased some economic sanctions. With Tokyo and Pyongyang now ready to talk business, the three key players — Japan, the U.S. and South Korea — are moving in step toward closer dialogue with North Korea.

The Murayama delegation and North Korea’s ruling party agreed that government-to-government talks should begin with no strings attached. The two sides also confirmed that “humanitarian issues of common concern to the two nations” — the alleged kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, allowing Japanese women married to North Koreans to return home, and resuming food aid to North Korea — should be a matter for cooperation between the governments and the Red Cross organizations of the two nations.

However, the secretary of the Workers Party, Kim Yong Sun, reacted coolly to the abduction issue, a major thorn in the side of Japan-North Korea relations, promising only that the Japanese in question would be looked for as “missing persons.” As long as this problem is kept on the back burner, it may be difficult to discuss in earnest, not only normalization, but food aid as well. If relations are to be normalized between the two nations, however, any problem must be settled in one way or another. Without normalization, the present limited channels of dialogue will remain pretty much as they are. All pending issues, therefore, should be thrashed out in official talks.

Japan and North Korea started normalization negotiations in January 1991 on the basis of an agreement reached in Pyongyang in 1990 between a visiting delegation from the Liberal Democratic Party and the then Japan Socialist Party, on the one hand, and the Workers Party on the other. Japan acknowledged that North Korea has claims to its properties confiscated by Japanese authorities in the past, including the colonization period, while North Korea demanded “war reparations and postwar compensation,” citing the 1990 agreement that acknowledged the need for Japanese “apologies and compensation,” not only for the colonization of North Korea, but also for losses suffered after the end of World War II.

Negotiations broke down in November 1992 when North Korea balked at Japanese inquiries about a Japanese woman who had allegedly been forced to serve as a language instructor for North Korean agents. In 1995 and 1997, a joint delegation from the three ruling parties at the time — the LDP, Shinto Sakigake and the JSP — agreed with the Workers Party to resume the talks, but the agreement never materialized because of discord over the handling of the abduction case.

All this makes it painfully clear how difficult it is to conduct normalization talks with North Korea. That difficulty remains. It is anomalous, however, that these close neighbors do not have diplomatic ties more than half a century after the end of World War II.

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