Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Tuesday achieved a breakthrough, although a qualified one, in ending decades-long mutual enmity between Japan and North Korea. In fact, the outcome of the talks between the two leaders at the historic summit in Pyongyang was more substantial than what Japanese people had generally expected.

However, one result was so shocking and unbelievable as to offset the welcome achievements at the summit. North Korea revealed that of 11 Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents during the 1970s and ’80s, only four remain alive in that country. Pyongyang confirmed the deaths of six others. No official information was obtained about one more person who was alleged to have been taken to North Korea.

For the first time, Mr. Kim formally admitted to a North Korean role in those abduction cases. He formally apologized for such international criminal conduct and said the agents involved had been punished. Mr. Kim promised to prevent a recurrence.

Mr. Koizumi viewed this admission as opening up the possibility of discussing a comprehensive settlement of issues long pending between the two countries. As a result, the two leaders agreed to resume in October the stalled negotiations for normalizing diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

Establishment of a normal relationship between the two nations is absolutely necessary to bring about peace and stability in Northeast Asia, where international tension remains despite the end of the Cold War more than 10 years ago. Bilateral normalization talks were launched in 1991, only to be suspended the following year. Talks resumed in April 2000 but broke off again in October of the same year.

However, the background for negotiations set to resume next month is different from that of past talks. North Korea’s domestic conditions as well as changes in international affairs are favorable. In addition, the coming negotiations are based on the first agreement between the heads of the two nations. Significantly, the joint Pyongyang declaration signed after the summit meeting calls for every possible effort toward early normalization of relations between the two countries.

In fact, abnormal relationships have prevailed over the two countries for nearly a century since 1910, when Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula. But the achievements made at the Pyongyang summit offer a chance for the two nations to rid themselves of the long history of colonization, antagonism and mutual distrust, and to move toward coexistence and cooperation.

In the joint declaration, both leaders confirmed that their countries will abide by related international agreements to secure an overall settlement to the nuclear-arms issue on the Korean Peninsula. They also confirmed the need to promote dialogue among the countries concerned to solve security issues, including nuclear arms and missiles. Specifically, North Korea pledged to continue its moratorium on missile launches beyond 2003. But this fell short of eliminating concerns over the suspected manufacturing and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Koizumi clearly apologized for what Imperial Japan did to the Koreans during the colonial period. By so doing, he carried out Japan’s historical responsibility of coming to terms with the past. Along with North Korea’s admission of the abductions, this has helped to pave the way for substantial talks toward normalization.

Pyongyang had demanded that Japan pay reparations in order to normalize bilateral relations, a demand that Japan had rejected because it had not been in a state of belligerency with North Korea. At long last, Pyongyang dropped that demand and accepted a formula in which Japan offers economic cooperation. Over a period to be agreed upon following normalization, Japan will offer extensive economic cooperation in the form of grants, long-term low-interest loans and humanitarian aid. Uphill efforts will be required on both sides to reach specific accords regarding these projects. As the joint declaration says, both sides should make sincere efforts to reach agreement. In this connection, the slow but steady development of improvement in relations between Japan and South Korea will serve as a good guide.

The summit meeting in Pyongyang was not wholly satisfactory, but acceptably successful. Mr. Kim has stated that the current relationship prevailing between Japan and North Korea, which can be described as “close but remote countries to each other,” will become a relic of the 20th century in the near future. Whether this can be translated into reality depends upon patient endeavors made by the two nations from now on. The first step toward that goal has been made.

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