The latest accord between Japan and North Korea on the resumption of formal intergovernmental talks can safely be described as a step forward.
Without fail, Tokyo must take this opportunity to negotiate afresh with Pyongyang toward breaking the protracted impasse over the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
During informal talks between foreign ministerial directors of the Japanese and North Korean governments that were held in Shenyang, northeastern China, last week, an agreement was reached to resume formal talks at director general-level consultations in the near future on “issues both sides are interested in”.
It seems North Korea has begun to soften its stance instead of the pure obstinacy that it has so far shown toward Japan. Symbolic of this is the decision by Pyongyang to allow Kim Eun Gyong, the daughter of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korea in 1977, to meet Yokota’s parents in a third country earlier this month. Pyongyang’s next move must be watched closely.
Japan-North Korea intergovernmental talks were held in November 2012 under the administration of then prime minister Yoshihiko Noda. The talks, however, have remained halted since then, as North Korea test-launched a long-range ballistic missile immediately afterward.
In the forthcoming talks to be resumed, one of Japan’s official agenda items must be to have North Korea recognise the abduction problem, which it has repeatedly claimed to have settled. The government should do its utmost to realise the immediate repatriation of all abductees, full disclosure of the truth of the abductions and the handover of the perpetrators to Japanese authorities.
Tokyo, first of all, must have Pyongyang give an assurance that it will conduct a fact-finding reinvestigation of the abduction victims.
During bilateral intergovernmental talks held in August 2008 in Shenyang, North Korea agreed to set up an expert organisation as early as possible to start reinvestigating the whereabouts of and information about the abduction victims. However, Pyongyang has since unilaterally put off such a probe.
It has been reported that North Korea, under the current regime of Kim Jong-un, has been in more dire economic straits than before. It is very likely that in the resumption of consultations North Korea will call for the easing of sanctions Tokyo has imposed on Pyongyang as well as economic assistance.
North Korea, however, has so far repeated hollow responses to the abduction problem. Kenji Furuya, state minister in charge of the abduction issue, has stressed that the Japanese government will never lift the economic sanctions or extend “even a single yen” in economic aid to Pyongyang as long as the abduction victims are unable to return. Furuya is absolutely right to say so.
In the coming consultations, the Japanese government should maintain its stance of also discussing the North’s nuclear and missile programmes, over which Japan shares concerns with the United States, South Korea and others, in pursuit of a comprehensive solution to those pending problems in addition to the abduction issue.