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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Japan says it will keep pushing abduction issue


Staff writer

Japan will ask North Korea to hold bilateral talks later this month on the sidelines of the six-party discussions seeking to end Pyongyang's nuclear threat, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said Monday.

Hosoda's remarks come after North Korea's surprise announcement over the weekend that it would return to the six-party talks, which bring together the two Koreas, Japan, the United States, China and Russia, in the week of July 25.

Officials of the U.S., South Korea and Japan will meet before the six-way talks to coordinate their policies, Hosoda said, adding that Tokyo in the six-way forum will again demand that Pyongyang account for the Japanese nationals the North's agents abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

Many observers doubt progress can be made on the bilateral front, especially if Japan adamantly demands resolution of the abduction issue.

Negotiations between Japan and North Korea have stalled, with the last official contact being a visit by a Japanese delegation to Pyongyang in November to question officials on the abductions.

At that time, North Korean officials handed over what they claimed to be the cremated remains of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted from Niigata Prefecture in 1977 at age 13.

DNA tests in Japan determined the remains were not hers, leading to heightened calls for the government to impose economic sanctions on the North.

"No matter how much they don't want to hear about it," Japan will protest North Korea's handing over of remains that were not hers, Hosoda stressed Monday.

But despite his remarks, government officials are pessimistic about the possibility of bilateral talks anytime soon.

A top Foreign Ministry official said North Korea has refused to receive phone calls from Japanese officials through diplomatic channels in Beijing since December, when the government released the results of its DNA tests -- results Pyongyang claimed were fabricated.

In announcing its return to the six-party talks, Pyongyang explicitly noted that Japan "never contributed" to international efforts to get the negotiations back on track. Such negative comments, another ministry official said, seem to be its way of saying bilateral talks are out of the question.

Nevertheless, the official said, Japan has no choice but to bring up the abductions if it is to avoid public criticism at home.

"Although North Korea's nuclear agenda is more important in terms of Japan's security, Japan does not dare breathe those words out of fear that it will be harshly criticized by the public (as signaling) the abduction issue (has been shelved)," he said.

But North Korea expert Pyon Jin Il, chief editor of Korea Report, a magazine specializing in Korean issues published in Japan, said the abduction issue is not likely to be resolved through bilateral talks and will require U.S. pressure.

"North Korea wants economic assistance in return for abandoning its nuclear (arms) program, but the U.S. cannot accept such a condition if the proposal is rejected by Japan," which will be providing the bulk of the aid, Pyon said.

Tokyo cannot provide economic assistance unless the abduction issue is resolved in line with the 2001 Pyongyang Declaration signed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, he said.

The Pyongyang Declaration pledges Japanese economic assistance only after North Korea ends its atomic weapons and missile programs, convincingly answers Japan's questions about the fate of the abductees and normalizes ties with Tokyo.

"The U.S. has to act as an intermediary between Japan and North Korea to push forward the abduction issue, and thus the nuclear issue," Pyon said. "The key for Japan is how to coordinate with the U.S., not North Korea."



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