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Thursday, Sep. 6, 2012

Next talks with North to address abductees?


BEIJING — Japan faces uncertainty ahead of planned high-level talks with North Korea as Pyongyang is refusing to state whether the issue of Japanese abductees will be added to the agenda.

News photo
On their mind: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda hopes Pyongyang leader Kim Jong Un allows the North to address the issue of the Japanese abductees, some of whose kin are seen above. KYODO

At a three-day bilateral meeting that ended Friday in Beijing, Tokyo and Pyongyang agreed to hold a meeting of higher-ranking officials, such as bureau chiefs, at an early time.

"We will consider all possible measures to realize a truly effective dialogue with North Korea and to encourage it to take concrete action" over the abductees issue, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Sunday.

Addressing a gathering on efforts to repatriate those abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, Noda stressed his determination to secure the return of all surviving victims. But a date for the meeting has yet to be set and Pyongyang has not announced if the talks will cover the issue —Tokyo's priority.

Observers say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be waiting to learn Noda's political fate — since rock-bottom approval ratings and an Upper House censure vote have eroded his power base — before deciding whether to negotiate with him.

On the accord reached in Beijing to hold a higher-level meeting to discuss "a broad range of issues of interest," a Japanese official said, "we have at least achieved our minimum target."

Yet the abductee issue has yet to be added to the agenda for the next session and though Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura has voiced optimism over its inclusion, Pyongyang, which considers the matter fully resolved, could still refuse to discuss it any further. The North maintains no abductees remain alive and the 2002 repatriation of five settled the matter.

The two sides extended the Beijing talks one day longer than planned after spending a considerable amount of time to adjust the precise phrasing of the agreement. Tokyo accepted the outcome even though the agenda for the next bilateral meeting remains unclear, with Pyongyang refusing to include the word "abduction" in the final version.

North Korea apparently "wants to confirm the course of Japanese politics," a source with expertise on bilateral affairs explained, noting Pyongyang views the political situation in Tokyo as unstable. Noda faces a Sept. 21 presidential poll in his ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and the party is widely expected to lose its grip on power in the next general election, which must be held no later than next summer.

"North Korea will not make a major diplomatic move until Japan has a stable government (with the authority) to make major decisions," a Japanese government source said.

But Kim has his reasons for seeking to keep the door open for bilateral negotiations. One of the most urgent tasks he faces is to fix the communist country's crippled economy.

"North Korea's leadership is growing anxious to gather money to achieve economic reforms, which are expected to be launched fully in the near future," one source said.

Japan may be the North's last hope, as the hermit country's ties with South Korea and the United States remain severely strained and only slow progress is expected to result from economic cooperation with China, it key regional ally, according to sources.

However, Pyongyang may be able to land economic assistance from Tokyo if diplomatic relations were officially established.

Foreign Ministry officials said North Korea's stance during the Beijing talks was not entirely hardline, and that "we exchanged opinions frankly."

Tokyo hopes to hold the high-level talks around mid-September, around the time of the 10th anniversary of a declaration signed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un.

"The road ahead may be rocky," a senior Foreign Ministry official said, "but at last we reached the start of full negotiations with North Korea."

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