The Japanese government announced March 7 it would resume food aid to North Korea, offering 100,000 tons of rice through the United Nations World Food Program. Following the decision, the two countries agreed to resume Red Cross talks on humanitarian issues March 13 in Beijing and reopen the ambassadorial-level negotiations on diplomatic normalization — suspended since 1992 — in early April in Pyongyang.

Working-level diplomatic negotiations held last December in Beijing, preparatory to reopening normalization talks, failed to resolve bilateral disputes on the alleged abduction of 10 Japanese by North Korean agents and on Pyongyang’s development of ballistic missiles.

Japan’s decision to resume food aid to North Korea without progress in negotiations on the alleged kidnapping is widely seen as a carrot to entice Pyongyang into reopening normalization talks. There is strong concern, however, that the Japanese strategy might backfire, allowing Pyongyang to shelve the issue.

Earlier this week, relatives of the missing Japanese and their supporters held a sit-in in front of the Foreign Ministry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Tokyo to protest the decision to speed up normalization talks. The protesters said the decision would send the wrong message to Pyongyang: that it did not have to resolve the abduction issue before receiving food aid. They feared efforts to rescue the missing from possible captivity in North Korea would be delayed.

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, who met with some of the relatives, said Japan hoped to use the impending talks as the first step toward solving the abduction mystery. I have doubts, however, about Japan’s decision to resume food aid without obtaining any promise from Pyongyang on the issue. North Korea has consistently denied any involvement in the alleged kidnappings.

The government made the decision on food aid despite strong reservations expressed by some officials of the LDP and its coalition partner, the Liberal Party.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki told reporters March 7 that the government made the decision in hopes of improving relations between Japan and North Korea and of obtaining Pyongyang’s positive response regarding pending bilateral issues. If there is no progress in negotiations on the missing Japanese, North Korea will receive food aid and give nothing in return. If that happens, there will be a public uproar against the normalization talks.

Foreign Ministry officials, while conducting the negotiations, should remember that diplomatic normalization depends on settling disputes on the alleged abduction, which violated Japan’s national sovereignty.

The agenda of the coming talks will differ little from those of earlier negotiations, suspended seven years ago. The agenda will include:

* Basic problems stemming from Japan-North Korea diplomatic normalization, especially its effects on Japan-South Korea relations.

* Economic problems, especially North Korea’s claims for reparations for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

* International issues, such as North Korea’s nuclear-arms development and missile exports.

* Other issues, including the suspected kidnapping of Japanese by North Korean agents, food aid and the homecoming of Japanese wives of North Koreans.

Both sides have held exhaustive discussions on these issues and the coming negotiations will be difficult. In 1998, the North Korean Red Cross Society flatly denied allegations that 10 Japanese had been kidnapped by North Korean agents. However, a joint statement on Red Cross talks held last December said that North Korea would ask the country’s relevant agencies to conduct serious investigations into the fate of the missing Japanese.

Last month, the official Korean Central Broadcasting Committee said North Korea has informed Japan that it has found none of the missing Japanese and that the issue has been settled. Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling Workers Party, said March 6 that the alleged abduction was only a “ruse.” All this indicates there is little prospect of progress in negotiations on the missing Japanese.

Meanwhile, the international environment surrounding the Japan-North Korea negotiations has changed since the talks were suspended.

Japan, the United States and South Korea have made progress in coordinating policies toward North Korea under the leadership of U.S. policy coordinator William Perry. Closer three-nation coordination regarding North Korea’s nuclear arms and missiles, the reunion of relatives between North and South Korea, and the missing Japanese now exerts strong diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang.

North Korea, departing from its past self-imposed isolation, is stepping up diplomatic efforts to improve relations with the rest of the world.

On March 5, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang. Furthermore, South Korean media reported that North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun would visit Beijing later this month. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov last month visited Pyongyang and signed a treaty of friendship, good neighborliness and cooperation with North Korea.

Pyongyang is also moving to improve its ties with Western countries. In January, Italy established diplomatic relations with North Korea. Later this month, Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini will visit Pyongyang. Last month, North Korea and Australia held working-level talks in Pyongyang on diplomatic normalization.

In February, high officials of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea held a meeting of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group. A joint press statement on the meeting said the three delegations hoped that the Japan-North Korea normalization talks would make progress and “further contribute to the improvement of the overall atmosphere in the region.”

Unlike in the previous talks, Japan will conduct the coming negotiations with North Korea in coordination with the TCOG. Japan should draw strength from the new circumstances and stay the course in pursuing justice in the negotiations.

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