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The Japanese government on Tuesday formally announced that it will provide 100,000 tons of rice to North Korea through the U.N. World Food Program. Japan is taking humanitarian action to follow up an agreement that the countries recently reached to resume the normalization talks — which broke down in November 1992 — in early April.

Tokyo and Pyongyang are now ready to revive the long-stalled negotiations that would establish diplomatic relations. This is a welcome development. However, it promises to be rough going. The last round of talks collapsed because the two sides failed to bridge their differences over a number of knotty issues, including the suspected abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents and Pyongyang’s demand for Japanese compensation for the colonization of Korea. Solutions to these issues are still nowhere in sight.

The absence of official relations with North Korea is proof that Japan has yet to settle a major post-World War II problem. To remove this roadblock and normalize ties with the North Koreans is a pressing priority. Normalization will help remove a major destabilizing factor in East Asia.

Moves toward resuming normalization talks began in earnest in early December when a suprapartisan group of Japanese Diet members headed by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama met with leaders of the Korean Workers Party in Pyongyang. The meeting led to preliminary talks later that month in Beijing between ranking officials of the Japanese and North Korean foreign ministries. Around the same time, officials from the two nations’ Red Cross societies also met in the Chinese capital.

The two governments made further unofficial contacts to work out a timetable for normalization talks. On those occasions the North Korean side reportedly requested a large amount of food aid. The Japanese side is said to have demanded a North Korean investigation into the abduction incidents.

Many Japanese argue that Tokyo’s decision to give a large amount of rice is premature, given that North Korea has thus far done nothing to clear up suspicions about the fate of the missing Japanese. Japanese dissatisfaction with North Korean inaction on this issue is quite natural, but tying the humanitarian question of food aid to the abduction cases will not help establish a constructive dialogue with the North Koreans.

A survey by the National Police Agency found as many as 10 Japanese missing. At the Red Cross meeting in Beijing, responding to a Japanese request for a probe into the whereabouts of those Japanese, the North Koreans promised an investigation by a “relevant organization.” However, the official media in Pyongyang said in mid-February that North Korea has notified Japan that there are no missing Japanese and that the whole issue has been settled.

In June 1998, North Korea’s Red Cross Society also announced that no missing Japanese had been found. The latest media commentary is a reminder that Pyongyang’s inflexibility on this issue remains unchanged. But North Korean leaders must know that these incidents, in which their agents are suspected of involvement, are a serious crime that violates Japanese sovereignty. Unless the problem is resolved, it will be impossible to build confidence between the two nations. Settlement is a sine qua non for successful normalization talks.

Japan, as well as the United States, began exploring ways to improve relations with North Korea last autumn when Pyongyang announced a moratorium on missile tests. Pyongyang, for its part, has recently stepped up its diplomacy. It has established diplomatic relations with Italy, making Rome the first Group of Seven industrialized democracy to make formal peace with that reclusive communist state. In addition, North Korea is promoting dialogue with the European Union and is negotiating to establish diplomatic ties with countries such as Australia.

The Japanese government takes a positive view of these moves. “We don’t know exactly what they are up to. But it is good that they are trying to have more contacts with the international community,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki. There is indeed a good possibility that North Korea will gradually change its isolationist, dogmatic policies.

Along with the U.S. and South Korea, Japan has an important role to play in achieving lasting stability and peace in the Korean Peninsula. The budding signs of improvement in Pyongyang-Tokyo relations do not warrant optimism, but things are inching toward the creation of an international environment that is favorable to the resolution of one of Japan’s last major postwar problems.

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