Japan and North Korea are moving toward resuming the long-stalled talks to normalize relations. Foreign ministry officials from the two nations met in Pyongyang for two days earlier this week and agreed to continue consultations to explore the possibilities for restarting the negotiations. Also, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il exchanged a message of good will for the first time through diplomatic channels.

There is no assurance, however, that these consultations will lead to the resumption of normalization talks. The fact remains that, more than half a century after the end of World War II, Japan and North Korea still have no diplomatic ties. This is bad not only for the two countries but also for stability in East Asia. Tokyo and Pyongyang must step up efforts to restore official ties as soon as possible.

The latest meeting of working-level officials — the first since the last round of normalization talks broke down in October 2000 — discussed a variety of problems, including the alleged abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents and North Korean claims for Japanese wartime compensation. However, no specific results have come out except for an agreement to meet again within a month to decide whether to reopen the normalization talks.

The meeting had raised high expectations at home and considerable interest abroad, following as it did a spate of North Korean moves toward dialogue, including its formal expression of regret over the naval clash with South Korean units in the Yellow Sea in late June. What is particularly disappointing is that no tangible progress has been made on the abduction problem, a major obstacle to normalization.

The Japanese government claims that at least 11 Japanese nationals, including a girl in Niigata City who went missing in 1977, were abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and the 1980s, apparently to help train Japanese-speaking spies. But the North Korean delegation gave no information about their whereabouts or other details. At an earlier meeting of Red Cross officials from the two nations, the other side even refused to discuss the problem, saying it was a political issue. This time around, Pyongyang said only that it supported a Red Cross investigation of the “missing people.”

The upside is that North Korea has expressed at least a desire to settle pending problems. A joint statement issued at the end of the meeting said: “To solve the problems it is important (for the two sides) to address them with political will.” This raises the possibility of Tokyo and Pyongyang making breakthrough decisions at the highest level of government to clear the hurdles to normalization.

It is also worth noting that the two sides have agreed on a “package formula” in dealing with their problems — particularly, the abduction case and the North Korean demand for an apology and compensation for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Previously North Korea had insisted that relations be normalized first following a settlement of the compensation issue, while Japan had maintained that a settlement of the abduction case was an essential precondition for normalization. The agreement on a package deal indicates that Pyongyang now recognizes the need to sort out this humanitarian problem before establishing formal ties.

If true, that represents an important change on the part of Pyongyang. In past negotiations, the communist government had reacted sharply to the Japanese position, saying the use of the word “abduction” reflected a policy of hostility toward the North Koreans. As things stand, however, it is unclear whether Pyongyang is really willing to resolve this problem. Given severe food shortages and other economic difficulties in North Korea, one wonders whether it is making a gesture of concession to obtain food and other aid from abroad.

The abduction case is not a semantic question but a real problem involving a dozen or more Japanese who were allegedly spirited away from Japan and Europe to North Korea between 1977 and 1983. They have not been heard from since. Naturally it is the government’s duty to locate their whereabouts and secure their safe return home. If North Korea really wants to improve relations with Japan, it must demonstrate its sincerity in deeds, not just in words.

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