The latest round of Japan-North Korea talks on normalizing relations, held in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week for the first time in two years, was conspicuous by the lack of substantial progress. The two sides remained far apart on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents more than 20 years ago.

The North Korean delegation, stressing that the abduction issue has already been “broadly resolved,” insisted that Japanese economic aid take precedence over other issues. Pyongyang, it must be said, has misread public opinion in Japan. As the Japanese delegation made clear, Japan will not be able to provide such assistance as long as the abduction issue lingers.

North Korea allowed five surviving abductees to return to Japan on Oct. 15 for family reunions for the first time in 24 years — on the assumption that they would stay here for just a week or two. The Japanese government, however, last week decided to let them remain here permanently. Moreover, it is demanding that their children, now in Pyongyang, be reunited with their parents here. Tokyo also is said to be considering allowing an abductee’s American husband to settle in Japan.

Separately, North Korea’s attempt to produce nuclear bombs is a grave security concern to Japan. During two days of talks in the Malaysian capital, Pyongyang refused to disclose details of its uranium-enrichment program, whose existence it had revealed earlier this month. Nor did it commit itself to abandoning its nuclear ambitions. While agreeing to discuss the matter with Tokyo, it warned that nothing would change fundamentally unless the United States changed its “hostile stance” toward North Korea.

The North’s rigid reaction suggests that normalization talks may drag on. Diplomacy may produce positive results down the road, but, for now at least, there seems to be little cause for optimism. Determination and patience, along with increased international cooperation and pressure, may be needed to induce it to change its mind.

Pyongyang’s claim that the abduction issue has been essentially resolved is preposterous. It is true, as chief delegate Jong Thae Hwa pointed out, that Mr. Kim Jong Il has acknowledged and apologized for the abductions and has pledged that North Korea will never again commit such inhuman acts. The statement — from the country’s supreme leader — carries weight, but the words have yet to be matched by deeds.

During the talks, North Korea accused Japan of breaking its promise to send the five abductees back to Pyongyang. Yet North Korea’s demand for their “return” does not make sense because it was North Korea that kidnapped them. Pyongyang has an obligation to return them permanently to Japan, together with their children, with no conditions attached. It also has a duty to provide further information on eight other abductees who it says are dead; their families hope they are alive.

The only agreement on security issues was that the two sides would start a dialogue to address a range of concerns, including the North’s missile-development program and use of spy ships. However, the nuclear issue is likely to receive relatively low priority, given Pyongyang’s stated position that a final solution depends solely on talks with the U.S.

Nevertheless, if Pyongyang is trying to play the “nuclear card” to get the U.S. to sign a nonaggression pact or recognize its continued rule, it is breaching its own declared commitment to comply with “all related international agreements” on nuclear arms — a commitment spelled out in the Pyongyang Declaration signed at the Sept. 17 Japan-North Korea summit.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the U.S. will not resume dialogue unless North Korea abandons its desire to go nuclear. If Pyongyang stays the nuclear course, it will face dire consequences at the very time that it badly needs external assistance. It is likely that the international project to build commercial reactors in North Korea in exchange for a halt to its nuclear weapons program will be canceled, and that the U.S. will stop supplying fuel oil pending reactor startup.

Dealing with a nuclear-capable North Korea requires multilateral diplomacy. At the latest Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Mexico, North Korea was urged to give up efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Russia and China, APEC members with friendly ties to North Korea, can persuade Pyongyang to scrap the program. Japan, for its part, should negotiate patiently in close coordination with the U.S. and South Korea. As leaders of the three nations agreed on the sidelines of the APEC meeting, Tokyo-Pyongyang talks provide an important channel for the isolated communist state to make prompt and visible responses to the demands of the international community.

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