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Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006

Where does the abduction issue fit in?

Tokyo backed into corner by six-party push for aid if North drops nukes

Staff writer

When the much-awaited next round of the six-party talks on denuclearizing North Korea begin Monday in Beijing, Tokyo again will try to raise the issue of Pyongyang's past abductions of Japanese, a topic not really welcome at the bargaining table.

News photo
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes the hand of Shigeru Yokota as Yokota's wife, Sakie, looks on after his speech Thursday at the National Rally on Abduction by North Korea in Tokyo. AP PHOTO

The promise of economic assistance could help persuade Pyongyang to drop its nuclear weapons program, but Tokyo's stance has been that it will not give any significant economic aid until three key issues are resolved -- ending the North Korean nuclear arms and ballistic missile threats and learning the true fate of the still-missing Japanese who were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Without a resolution of the abduction issue, giving economic assistance is out of the question," a top Foreign Ministry official said recently.

Tokyo is demanding that Pyongyang admit that it kidnapped the 17 people officially listed as having been taken. Pyongyang has only admitted abducting 13, five of whom it allowed to return to Japan in 2002, claiming they were the only ones still alive.

Treating the three issues equally may seem strange since the nuclear and missile threats affect millions of people, whereas the abductions affect only a small number.

But for politicians here, the abduction issue holds extraordinarily heavy weight. The disappearance of the 17 mostly young people and the anguish of their next of kin have received continuous media coverage since 2002, including on influential TV gossip shows, triggering a huge public outpouring of sympathy.

Resolving the abduction issue has been a key pillar of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who built his career on the huge popular support he received for his tough stance on North Korea that he nurtured under his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who brought the five abductees and their families to Japan.

"Unless North Korea shows a sincere attitude toward the abduction issue, we will have to keep putting pressure on them," Abe told reporters Thursday, speaking about Japan's economic sanctions on North Korea.

Abe made a name for himself with the abduction issue as deputy chief Cabinet secretary in 2000.

He has worked with abductees' relatives and gained their trust. Their relationship was cemented when, after the five abductees were allowed to visit Japan in October 2002, Abe was the most visible lawmaker saying they should remain in Japan, despite pressure from the Foreign Ministry to return them to Pyongyang as Tokyo had promised.

One of the first things Abe did after he became chief Cabinet secretary last year was to send a message to the Foreign Ministry, which he believes is too reconciliatory with the North, that the government will stand firm in its position on the abductions.

"As long as I am in this position, there won't be any normalization of ties with North Korea unless the abduction issue is resolved," a close Abe aide quoted him as telling ministry bureaucrats.

But that stance is putting Japan in a tight spot, because North Korea has declared the issue closed and the central issue at the six party talks is expected to be the North's nuclear and ballistic missile threats.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already indicated the U.S. would be willing to give economic and energy assistance to the North if it completely denuclearizes and allows inspections for verification.

Christopher Hill, chief negotiator for the U.S. at the talks, also hinted Wednesday there are already positive signs from North Korea that it is willing to discuss such a deal.

If the other nations agree next week to give economic aid to the North in return for its ending its nuclear arms quest, Japan could be asked to shoulder much of the costs, as was the case with the 1994 U.S.-North Korea agreement.

That deal saw the suspension of North Korea's nuclear arms program in return for economic assistance, and resulted in the creation of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in March 1995.

"Honestly speaking, if all the issues are settled, Japan's burden of economic aid would be greater than any other country" in the talks, a senior Foreign Ministry official predicted.

However, if North Korea does denuclearize, Japan would benefit the most out of the countries participating in the talks.

According to U.S. Army Gen. Burwell Bell, commander of American forces in South Korea, the North has deployed 200 Rodong ballistic missiles that have all of Japan within their reach.

While it is believed the North does not have nuclear warheads small enough for the Rodong to carry, prolonged negotiations will give it more time to create smaller devices.

To get the abduction issue on the table, Foreign Ministry officials have said Japan will probably propose forming a working group as part of the six-party talks that would discuss Japanese-North Korean relations.

Tokyo hopes that by getting a separate discussion with Pyongyang, it will not have to make a definite promise on providing economic aid before resolving the abduction issue.

In November 2005, the government took a similar approach and tried to set up three separate committees for discussing the nuclear and missile issues, the abductions and normalization of bilateral relations simultaneously. But it is now politically tougher for the government to talk about giving economic aid to Pyongyang, given the decline in public opinion about the North, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

No one knows if next week's talks will yield progress.

"We have no idea until the talks open," another senior Foreign Ministry official said.

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