The latest normalization talks between Japan and North Korea, held here for two days last week, ended in a draw, although the two sides agreed to meet again later this year. While North Korea focused on “liquidating the past,” demanding a Japanese apology and compensation for the 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula, Japan insisted that North Korea first settle the long-pending issue of the alleged abduction of Japanese civilians by North Korean agents and provide assurances that it will give up its missile-development program.

The talks did not break down, as did talks held earlier this decade, and the two sides reaffirmed the need to continue the dialogue. A joint statement says the two nations will step up negotiations to establish diplomatic relations and that the next round will be held in October in an unspecified third country. Given the wide differences between the two delegations, that may be considered an achievement of sorts.

Since the last normalization talks opened in April in Pyongyang for the first time in more than seven years, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has changed dramatically, due chiefly to the historic inter-Korean summit meeting held in June. North Korea’s international circumstances have also improved markedly, thanks to Pyongyang’s active efforts to promote dialogue and exchanges with other countries.

The question is how Pyongyang’s diplomatic offensive will influence future normalization talks. The answer, for now, is anything but clear, but there are promising signs. During the latest round, North Korean Ambassador Jong Thae Hwa expressed a desire to reach a final settlement by the end of the year, saying that the two countries “will not be able to fulfill their historical responsibility if we carry over our enmities to the 21st century.” Japanese Ambassador Kojiro Takano said it is the “will of the entire Cabinet, from Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on down, to make North Korea a close neighbor.”

The “liquidation of the past” is the crux of the normalization talks. North Korea stood firm on this issue, demanding that Japan offer a formal apology for its colonial rule, pay compensation to the victims of colonization, compensate for Korean cultural assets seized or destroyed during that period, and give a legal guarantee of permanent residency to pro-Pyongyang Korean residents here. Japan also reiterated its basic position that it will not pay war reparations or compensation for human and physical damage because it had not waged a war with Korea, and that the compensation issue should be handled as one of property claims.

Encouragingly, however, the two sides, while sticking to their guns, made subtle concessions. North Korea not only dropped the word “reparations,” but also made it clear that it will not demand “postwar compensation.” Japan said it wants to take concrete steps, starting with the next meeting, toward bridging differences. Citing the normalization deal with South Korea, the Japanese side offered to provide $300 million in grant aid and $200 million in easy-term loans — a program of economic cooperation identical to that between Japan and South Korea. The focus of future talks, therefore, will be whether Pyongyang will accept compensation in the form of economic aid.

No progress was made on the abduction and missile problems, nor is it clear whether substantive progress will be made in future talks. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, in a meeting with Mr. Jong, requested that North Korean authorities conduct a full investigation into the alleged abductions. But the ambassador denied that any such incidents had occurred.

These incidents — Japanese authorities believe 10 Japanese were kidnapped by North Korean spies in the 1970s and 1980s — constitute not only grave threats to the peace and safety of the Japanese people, but also serious crimes that violate the sovereignty of this nation. It will be impossible to normalize relations unless and until this problem is resolved. Along with the “liquidation of the past,” the abduction case is a major obstacle to improving bilateral relations.

While no immediate optimism is warranted, there is reason to hope for an eventual breakthrough. The North Korean delegation left the door open to negotiations and agreed to Red Cross investigations of the “missing people.” The joint statement, which aims for an early establishment of amity and friendship, calls for exchanges of diplomatic and business personnel as a way to promote mutual understanding. In September, a third group of Japanese wives living in North Korea will be allowed to visit their hometowns here. These steps could help get the normalization talks moving.

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