The latest meeting of Japanese and North Korean Red Cross officials, held in Beijing this week to discuss the long-pending issue of the alleged abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, ended on a positive note. The North Korean side confirmed they had resumed the search for the “missing persons.” And the two sides agreed to hold the next meeting around June. They also agreed to let Japanese wives of North Koreans resume home visits this summer.

None of this warrants optimism, however. The issue is simply back to where it was before December 2001, when North Korea unilaterally called off the search. In a joint statement issued at the end of the two-day meeting, North Korea said it will conduct a search, promptly inform Japan of the results and take “necessary steps.” But no breakthrough was made toward clarification of the kidnapping allegations. Prospects for the safe return home of the Japanese involved remain as dim as ever.

This issue remains a major obstacle to the normalization of Japan-North Korea relations. Pyongyang should make serious efforts to settle this essentially humanitarian problem. If it does, the Beijing meeting, held for the first time in about two years amid new developments in the case, will have marked a major milestone in the Tokyo-Pyongyang dialogue.

In March this year, a Japanese court obtained testimony from the former wife of a Japanese Red Army member that she had played a part in kidnapping a Japanese college graduate, Miss Keiko Arimoto, from Europe to North Korea. That brought to 11 the number of Japanese whom the National Police Agency suspects were abducted by North Korean agents between 1977 and 1983. Unconfirmed reports said later that one of the 11 had been seen alive, touching off speculation that it might be Miss Arimoto.

In the latest talks, however, North Korea reportedly gave no details about their safety. Its equivocal response is frustrating. Back in 1997, during a visit to Pyongyang by a Japanese parliamentary group, the Korean Labor Party promised for the first time to conduct a search for the “missing persons.” But in June of the following year, the party announced that none of them had been discovered.

Subsequently, however, a further investigation was promised in response to a Japanese request. But last December North Korea abruptly declared it over, prompting many Japanese to wonder whether any investigation was carried out. They suspect that Pyongyang’s promises might have been just a token gesture of humanitarian cooperation aimed at extracting Japanese food aid.

Indeed, there is a deep feeling of irritation here and anger that North Korean officials continue to obscure the issue, referring to the Japanese victims as nothing more than “missing persons.” The feeling, in other words, is that North Korea is not showing sincerity despite the gravity of the alleged abductions. Kidnapping, of course, is a serious crime, even more so if it is committed by a state.

That is why the latest promise to restart the search should be taken with a grain of salt. Pyongyang has consistently claimed, as it did again in the latest meeting, that there is no abduction issue between the two nations. It must change that rigid position if it is to conduct a fruitful investigation.

The recent inauguration of a new suprapartisan group pledged to “rescue the Japanese abducted by North Korea” reflects growing Japanese irritation at North Korean inaction. The group, which believes that abductions did take place, naturally takes a tough attitude toward North Korea.

Significantly, the latest Red Cross meeting was held in response to a North Korean request. It is always difficult to fathom what the North Korean leadership has in mind. It is likely, however, that Pyongyang’s overture reflects its belief that an early rapprochement with Washington is difficult to achieve given U.S. President George W. Bush’s portrayal of North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.” If that is the case, it can be surmised that Pyongyang is trying to undercut tripartite cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea by improving relations with Tokyo.

Whatever the reason, it is welcome that North Korea appears to be taking a more accommodative attitude toward Japan. The eventual aim is to normalize relations between the two “distant neighbors” — a move that will greatly contribute to stability in Northeast Asia. But the goal will remain elusive as long as the abduction issue remains unresolved. The initiative for a breakthrough in this issue must come from North Korea. It must first acknowledge the gravity of the problem and then make earnest efforts toward its resolution.

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