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Japan, North Korea stumble over abductions
By Richard Hanson

TOKYO - In the cockeyed world of diplomacy with North Korea, the small Japanese Foreign Ministry entourage that returned from a brief visit to Pyongyang achieved quite a lot - or not very much. The issue of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang was dominant.

For one thing, after a year's hiatus in talks to normalize relations between two countries, the two sides actually met from Wednesday through Saturday. The five-member Japanese delegation was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka and Mitoji Yabunaka, head of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau,

This enabled both Japan and North Korea to probe the bilateral ground for the second round of "six-nation" talks later this month on defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis. The six-party talks are scheduled to open in Beijing on February 25 and last several days. In addition to North Korea and South Korea, the talks will involve China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

"The two sides [re]stated their positions on the abduction issue, so we could not produce tangible results," a spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry said after Japanese diplomats returned home Saturday.

The abduction of 13 Japanese nationals by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s is the major stumbling block to improving diplomatic relations. When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made ahistoric trip to the North in September 2002, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted that government agents abducted the Japanese nationals, eight of whom reportedly died. Five survivors have been allowed to return to Japan, but their relatives, numbering eight, have remained in North Korea.

Tanaka and Yabunaka, heads of the delegation, demanded an immediate, unconditional visit to Japan by the eight relatives of five abducted people who returned to Japan, according to the Japanese foreign ministry official who briefed journalists on the visit. Japan also wants to know what exactly happened to those listed as dead.
Abductions overshadow North Korea nukes
This remains a highly emotional subject in Japan, where the revelations over the abductions have overshadowed other issues on the table, such as North Korea's nuclear and missile programs that threaten Japan's security.

Ironically, North Korea's lapse into apparent candor over part of the mystery behind the abductions has wetted the Japan's desire to know more.

"If they were sent off to political prison camps and suffered there the way political prisoners usually have, coming clean on that could be as damaging to Kim Jong-il as his earlier confession that the North had abducted Japanese and some of them were dead," said Bradley K Martin, author of a forthcoming book on North Korea's Kim dynasty.

According to Japanese press reports, Tokyo asked Pyongyang to set up a joint agency to investigate the cases of some 10 other Japanese nationals, most of whom North Korea has admitted abducting and said were dead. There are strong suspicions that many more people abducted from both South Korea and Japan remain hidden, or perhaps literally buried, in the North.

Despite the lack of official progress, some believe that the talks did indicate small, positive changes in North Korea's attitude after a year of stalemate.

One high-ranking Japanese politician, Shinzo Abe, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a hawk on the abduction issue, discerned a change in the North Korean attitude as evidenced by the changed behavior of a senior Pyongyang official. This assumes personalities do indeed count.

Abe, responding to reports of the talks, said that Kang Kok-ju, first vice foreign minister and a diplomatic aide to Kim Jong-il, "listened to Japan's arguments in silence", without the usual objections.

Slight improvement in Pyongyang's attitude
"This no doubt represents one change. It bore major significance," Abe, who is considered future prime ministerial material, told one audience. Since Kang reports directly to Kim Jong-il, his participation in the talks means that Japan's stand will be conveyed to the one person in North Korea who can make things happen, other reports said.

North Korea's acknowledgment of the kidnapping and that some died or disappeared does not even begin to satisfy other arms of the Japanese government. Kidnapping is not only a crime against humanity; it is against the law. From testimony of North Korean defectors and other evidence, it is believed that a much larger group of Japanese have been taken by North Korean agents over the past couple decades.

The reasons for the abduction have not been spelled out, but it is believed they may have been abducted in order to help North Korea agents better understand Japanese behavior, customs and language.

In Japan, police investigations already are under way in an effort to determine whether foul play was involved in a number of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea and listed as missing. This is where all of North Korea's neighbors share an urgent common interest in what North Korea will do. China, which maintains an economic pipeline for the desperately poor country, is especially concerned, and in recent months it has bolstered its military presence on its porous border with North Korea.

Other forms of aid to North Korea have in large measure dried up since United States President George W Bush labeled Pyongyang one of his "axis of evil", including Iran and Iraq. Numerous reports indicate serious ongoing shortages of food in the North, where starvation in recent years is reported to have taken a huge toll.

China is will set the tone of the six-nation talks. North Korea is reported as saying that will not let Japan participate in the talks if the abduction issue is brought up. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman this weekend said that North would refuse Japanese participation in the six-way talks in Beijing, if Japan proposes the abduction issue be put on the agenda of the multilateral talks on the North's nuclear weapons program.

Meanwhile, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is expected to chair the talks, told a senior ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politician, that North Korea seems prepared to settle the abduction issue in a "positive" way. "I am hoping that some progress will be made by the visit to North Korea," Wang was quoted as saying.

Abduction issue blocks normalization
Officially, for Japan, the abduction issue is at the heart of the problem of how and when to revive talks over the normalization of Japan-Korea diplomatic relations. If anything, the issue has increased in intensity.

By sending Yabunaka and Tanaka to Pyongyang, Japan sent to of its best-known diplomats.Tanaka is known for helping to bring about the breakthrough that enabled Koizumi to make his historic visit to North Korea in September 2002. Tanaka, however, has been criticized for not anticipating the public furor in Japan over the abductions. It was during Koizumi's visit that Kim Jong-il finally admitted to the abductions, believing that the admission would clear the air and open the way for better relations with Japan.

Koizumi was unprepared for the tidal wave of backlash as the five returning abductees began telling their stories to the Japanese people. The reason is partly that Kim finally told what seemed to be the truth about what the world knew or suspected was true of North Korea's brutality.

Japanese officials also urged North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons development program, including the enrichment of uranium. North Korea, however, denied existence of any program to develop enriched uranium. Pyongyang also said that it is waiting to see how the US and other countries will respond to its offer to freeze its nuclear plan during the six-nation talks.

Yabunaka from the foreign ministry is expected to attend the next bilateral talks in Beijing. Prior to that, he will meet with his counterparts from the US and South Korea in Seoul on February 23, where he will brief them on his latest visit to Pyongyang and ask them to take up the abduction issue during the six-nation talks.
Some say North Korea may be relatively flexible and forthcoming in the next round of talks because it is desperate to normalize relations with other countries, especially Japan. Kim is also desperate for money from Japan - the kind of reparations for Japan's World War II atrocities that South Korea received when it normalized relations in 1985.

For Pyongyang, normal Japan ties = $10 billion
Some reckon that a non-threatening North Korea might have expected about US$10 billion in normalizing gifts and reparations - that may still be on Kim Jong-il's mind.

Japan, on the other hand, has its own hard core. Japan's largest daily newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, on Sunday ran a no-nonsense editorial on the results of last week's talks.

"North Korea's use of the dispute over the abductees' families as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Japan is unforgivable. The two nations agreed to continue official negotiations before wrapping up the latest talks, but Japan should take an even stricter approach to North Korea in future talks

. "North Korea's decision to hold the latest talks and its agreement to continue government-level negotiations with Japan may be part of a very calculated move. Pyongyang has good reason to fear antagonizing the Japanese even more by refusing to sit down at the negotiating table over the abduction issue," the Yomiuri editorial said. "Japan must have as many cards as possible up its sleeve when dealing with North Korea."

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Feb 16, 2004

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