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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 226 (Sept. 6, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea, Japan Hold First Talks in 4 Years to Discuss Mutual Concerns

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea and Japan held their first government-to-government talks in four years last week in an attempt to lay the groundwork to overcome decades of mutual distrust and resolve the legacy of Japan's colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

   During the working-level talks in Beijing, North Korea and Japan held a hectic dialogue in the hopes they would soon hold higher-level talks that could cover Pyongyang's past abduction of Japanese citizens, a Japanese official said Aug. 31 after three days of preparatory discussions.

   Discussions between Tokyo and Pyongyang have been frozen since August 2008 because of animosity over past friction and disputes over the North's nuclear program and its kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

   After the talks, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said on Aug. 31 the two countries agreed to put wide-ranging issues of "mutual concern" on the agenda and noted that the abduction issue should be included as it is part of Japan's concerns.

   The first government-to-government talks after a four-year hiatus lasted around seven hours over three sessions and carried the hopes of aging relatives of Japanese abductees that progress could be made on an issue that remains a major obstacle to normalizing bilateral ties.

   The North maintains the abduction cases have been resolved, but Japan has been seeking a reinvestigation. The last time they held talks in August 2008, North Korea and Japan agreed on a reinvestigation, but Pyongyang later broke off the deal.

   The official said Japan has repeatedly told North Korea that the abduction issue is a matter of concern, and North Korea "fully understands" Japan's interest in including the topic on the agenda for the talks.

   But there were no explanations regarding how exactly the North Korean officials responded to Japan's call to take up the abduction issue.

   Representatives from Tokyo and Pyongyang also agreed to upgrade their intergovernmental talks to a higher-level meeting to be held as soon as possible in Beijing. Japan envisions the ensuing talks to be at the director general level, according to the official.

   In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a press conference that Japan believes the abduction issue should be discussed between the two sides and that it welcomes the agreement with North Korea to hold higher-level talks.

   The official said at the next meeting, "We hope to hold in-depth discussions on the abduction issue, which our country values, and make progress" on the matter.

   Arrangements will be made for the next talks to take place possibly in the first half of September, Japanese government sources said. The meeting is expected to be attended by Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and Song Il-ho, North Korea's ambassador for talks to normalize diplomatic relations with Japan.

   Other issues likely to be taken up then, the official said, are the issue of the remains of Japanese who died in what is now North Korea during the final phase of World War II as well as security, which could encompass the North Korean missile and nuclear issues.

   Other potential topics of discussion include the cases of missing Japanese suspected of having been abducted to North Korea but who are not yet recognized as such by the government, how to deal with the return of Japanese wives who moved with their Korean spouses to North Korea under a repatriation project from 1959, and the return of Japanese hijackers of a Japan Airlines plane in 1970.

   At the recently-concluded meeting, Japan was represented by Keiichi Ono, director of the Northeast Asia Division of the Foreign Ministry, while North Korea's representative was Ryu Song-il, a Foreign Ministry official dealing with Japan affairs.

   The talks were characterized as "preliminary consultations" to determine the agenda of full-fledged talks between Japan and North Korea.

   They were initially scheduled to last for two days but were extended by a day due to a "need to talk further" on certain issues, according to a Japanese government official.

   Tokyo had also wanted the talks to be conducted at the director general level, which could speed up the decision-making process because officials at this level have more authority in negotiations, but they were downgraded to working level at the North's request.

   Representatives alternated the venue of the talks between their embassies in Beijing.

   The meeting in China, North Korea's close ally, was the first official bilateral contact under the leadership of North Korea's Kim Jong-un, who took over after the death of his father Kim Jong-il last December, and the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power in 2009.

   The talks were intended to follow up on an agreement reached earlier in August by their nations' Red Cross officials on the retrieval of the remains of Japanese who died in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula during the closing stages of World War II and afterward.

   Based on Japanese government data, around 34,600 Japanese are believed to have died of hunger and disease during and after World War II in what is now North Korea. The remains of around 21,600 people are said to remain there.

   As for the abduction issue, no tangible progress has been seen since five of the Japanese abductees were repatriated to Japan in 2002. The five are part of the 17 nationals recognized by the Japanese government as having been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

   North Korea has admitted to abducting 13 Japanese nationals and using them to train spies. It pledged in the 2008 talks to reinvestigate the abductions, but has not done so.

   Diplomatic sources said the results of the talks would be taken back to Tokyo and Pyongyang for further discussion, and the two would work to hold broad talks with issues of concern to both sides on the agenda, possibly in September.

   Japan intended to strongly pursue the abduction issue at the future discussions, which would be classified as inter-governmental talks, he said.

   Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a regular news briefing in Tokyo it was his understanding that the talks were "very sincere, candid and rather pointed."

   The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations and have long been at odds over numerous issues, including the seizures and the legacy of Japan's colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.

   The secretive North Korea admitted in 2002 that its agents kidnapped Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies by teaching them Japanese language and culture, and later allowed five of them and their families to return home.

   It said a number of others died, though many in Japan hold out hope they remain alive. There are also suspicions Pyongyang's agents abducted more Japanese than they admitted.

   Jin Matsubara, Japan's state minister for the abduction issue, said recently that progress could yield big dividends in humanitarian aid for North Korea.

   The latest bilateral meetings were closely watched for any clues as to whether North Korea's foreign policy could change under new leader Kim Jong-un.

   Tokyo is also worried about security issues related to North Korea, which carried out underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 as well as tests of ballistic rockets that flew over Japanese territory in 1998 and 2009.

   Pyongyang also launched a long-range rocket on April 13 that was supposed to fly over far southwestern Japanese islands, but crashed in pieces shortly after takeoff.

   Meanwhile, North Korea remains suspicious of Japan, which is a close military ally of the United States.

   Pyongyang also regularly blasts Tokyo for its colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century and treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan.

   Meanwhile, a North Korean official who took part in talks with Japan in Beijing refrained from commenting on how Pyongyang would respond to Tokyo's call to put the issue of the North's past abductions of Japanese nationals on the agenda of future bilateral talks.

   Ryu Song-il, a Foreign Ministry official dealing with Japan affairs, told reporters on Sept. 1 before heading back to his country that the specific issues to be discussed with Japan "will be arranged through diplomatic channels."

   Concerning the just-ended talks, Ryu said, "We were able to hold deep discussions on matters of concern for each side." As for the schedule of the next talks, he said he cannot say when it would be because the two sides must still make arrangements.

   But several days later, North Korea officially denied news reports that Pyongyang accepted the inclusion of abduction issue in the main agenda items of the Pyongyang-Tokyo talks.

   North Korea's denial came on Sept. 5 through a question-answer session of its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) with a foreign ministry spokesman on the results of the talks.

   The spokesman said, "The Japanese government and political and media fields are saying that the DPRK (North Korea) accepted the inclusion of 'abduction issue' in the main agenda items of the talks and the DPRK is expecting sort of economic rewards through the issue of remains of Japanese. But this is a sheer lie."

   The spokesman claimed, "The misrepresentation of facts which is a mockery of the good faith shown by the DPRK increases the suspicion as to the Japanese side's abuse of the issue of remains for meeting its sordid political purpose."

   He added the DPRK has approached the issue of the remains of Japanese "in good faith and with magnanimity from the humanitarian stand and will keep doing so."