Japan and North Korea have agreed to hold official talks in Beijing on Aug. 29. The last official talks were held in August 2008. The planned talks will be the first official talks for both the Democratic Party of Japan government and North Korea under the leadership of Mr. Kim Jong Un. Although the talks are just preliminary talks, Japan should use the opportunity to open a permanent channel of official contact with Pyongyang. Both Japan and North Korea should strive to prevent the talks from just turning into an exchange of acrimonious statements.

The groundwork for the talks were laid out at a meeting in Beijing on Aug. 9 and 10 between the North Korean Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross Society on repatriating the remains of Japanese who died on the Korean Peninsula shortly before or immediately after the end of World War II and allowing visits to their grave sites by bereaved family members. Japan needs to find out North Korea’s motive for taking up the remains issue and whether Pyongyang has any intention of further expanding diplomatic contact by utilizing the Aug. 29 talks.

Pyongyang had long been aware of the remains issue. Officials of a Japanese private organization had mentioned the issue to the North Korean side several years ago when they visited North Korea. Recently, Pyongyang said it had discovered Japanese remains at a construction site. According to Japan’s health and welfare ministry, the remains of about 22,000 Japanese are buried in North Korea.

In the talks, Japan plans to take up the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents. Although North Korea may try to shun the issue, Japan should strongly remind North Korea of its agreement in August 2008 to set up a joint committee to investigate the abduction issue in exchange for lifting of parts of Japan’s economic sanctions. Tokyo should warn Pyongyang that unless it keeps its promise, the sanctions will remain in place.

Japan also needs to find out whether recent changes in North Korea involving Mr. Kim are a sign of meaningful changes in the country’s overall orientation. On July 15, he relieved Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, the North Korean People’s Liberation Army’s Chief of General Staff, of all his duties in the Workers’ Party of Korea. Two days later, Mr. Kim was named Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He also made public appearances with his wife Ri Sol Ju. While upholding the “military first” policy, he appears to be eager about economic reconstruction. In recent inspection tours, he’s visited mainly non-military facilities. He is also reported to be pursuing a policy of allowing farmers to freely dispose of surplus agricultural products. It is important for Japan to determine whether Mr. Kim is pushing real reform. If so, Japan should carefully consider what kind of approach it should take toward North Korea.

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