The latest round of normalization talks held in Beijing last week between Japan and North Korea failed to reach any specific agreement. Although no statement was issued, it seems clear that the two sides largely agreed to disagree, at least for the moment. The two nations remained divided over the pivotal question of “settling the past” — a veiled reference to Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to the end of World War II.

The stalemate in Japan-North Korea relations is in marked contrast to stepped-up moves toward detente on the Korean Peninsula, the world’s last Cold-War frontier. The two Koreas, following up their historic summit meeting in June, are now edging ever closer to reconciliation. Washington is rapidly improving ties with Pyongyang, as evidenced by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s ground-breaking trip last month. A number of other nations are also planning to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea.

The current round of normalization talks, the third in a series, started in April after a lapse of seven and a half years. In the first two rounds, both sides went no further than explaining their basic positions. During the latest session, they also discussed specific issues in an effort to find common ground. But the question of “settling the past” stood in the way of progress.

North Korea insisted, as always, that Japan apologize and “compensate” for its colonial past. But Japan rejected the demand for compensation, pointing out that the two nations never entered a state of war. The Japanese approach is to settle the “past question” in the form of economic aid, in the same way that relations with South Korea were normalized in 1965. It appears that the North Korean delegation opposed this proposal.

No progress was made, either, on the alleged abduction of Japanese civilians by North Korean agents, a knotty issue that remains a major obstacle to normalization. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori hinted that the problem could be resolved in a subtle way that would remove the stigma of “abduction” from the problem.

The Japanese government, in an attempt to smooth the way for the Beijing talks, decided earlier to send 500,000 tons of rice to Pyongyang, an amount that is much greater than that requested by the World Food Program. That decision seems to have proved a dud, however, considering that the session produced no tangible results. Given the deep-seated problems, historical and otherwise, that separate the two nations, it may be difficult to expect substantive progress in such a short period.

At any rate, the problem of “the past” — the history of Korean colonization — must be settled in one way or the other. At least on this point the two sides agree. The abduction case, in which a dozen Japanese citizens were allegedly kidnapped by North Korean spies in the 1970s, must also be settled. While both problems are difficult, they are not insolvable. It will take patient and earnest efforts on both sides.

There is a worry among Japanese that Japan is lagging behind other nations in efforts to improve ties with North Korea. Given the historical background of Japan-North Korea relations and the enormous difficulties involved in the normalization talks, however, it is naive to think that Japan should — or could — move in step with other nations. Basically, Japan has only one option: to work out long-term solutions while promoting mutual understanding through patient dialogue, rather than seek quick, half-measures.

This is not to say that normalization can be delayed for long. The Japanese must face facts: More than half a century after the end of World War II, Japan and North Korea are still “distant neighbors” looking at each other suspiciously across the Sea of Japan. This abnormal situation must be corrected as soon as possible, not only for the common interest of the two nations, but also for stability and peace in Northeast Asia, in the rest of Asia and the world. The obstacles are formidable, but they are not insurmountable.

The first thing Japan should do is reaffirm its guiding principles of international peace and stability. This nation should come to terms clearly with its militaristic past by looking squarely at what it did in Asia under a policy of aggression and colonization and, on that basis, step up efforts to build friendly and cooperative relations with neighboring nations.

Normalizing relations with North Korea must be an integral part of these efforts. Whatever difficulties beset the normalization talks, Japan and North Korea cannot forever remain “strangers” to each other. The stalemate in the negotiations should provide a good opportunity to reaffirm these basic points.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.