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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 237 (Nov. 22, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

North Korea, Japan Agree to Continue Dialogue over Bilateral Issues

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Senior North Korean and Japanese diplomats held their first talks in four years in Mongolia last week and agreed to continue bilateral consultations on major issues for the normalization of their diplomatic relations.

   Details of their talks were not made public immediately, but the negotiators from the two countries said they had "deep exchanges of opinions" over long-standing issues, which include the North's past abductions of Japanese nationals and Japan's compensation for the colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

   Diplomatic sources in Seoul said the two countries also agreed on the need to deepen discussions about security-related issues, such as North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs.

   In the two-day talks held in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, the North Korean side raised the issue of Japan's reparations for its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, which Pyongyang sees as the most important topic, according to news reports.

   North Korean officials also reportedly referred to compensation arising from the issue of "comfort women," the colloquial term for women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.

   The Japanese side indicated it intends to settle the issue through economic cooperation it promised under the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, which committed the two countries to working toward the normalization of relations.

   Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met in Pyongyang in September 2002 and signed the Pyongyang Declaration calling for efforts to normalize diplomatic ties.

   North Korea's chief delegate to the recent talks, Song Il-ho, said the discussions with Japan were held in a "sincere mood" but did not mention the abduction issue when he spoke with reporters following the talks, according to a pro-Pyongyang newspaper published in Japan.

   The Choson Sinbo reported in a dispatch from Ulan Bator that Song said the two sides shared the recognition that the Pyongyang Declaration is a marker to lead toward improving bilateral ties.

   The official publication of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, known as Chongryon, said detailed matters related to the follow-up talks between the two countries will be adjusted through their embassies in Beijing.

   The North Korean chief negotiator, who is also ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan, told the newspaper the Japanese raised the issue of the North's past abduction of Japanese nationals during the two-day talks.

   Japanese negotiator Shinsuke Sugiyama said both sides agreed to continue their dialogue for "further consideration" about the issue of the North's past abduction of Japanese nationals, according to Japanese reports.

   Sugiyama, director general of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, also told reporters the two countries agreed to hold their next round of bilateral talks as early as possible.

   "Although the consultation itself is not an easy matter, both sides have exchanged views sincerely," Sugiyama told Japanese reporters after a nearly seven-hour session.

   "The atmosphere of the meeting was not acerbic. It was direct, serious and very rich in substance. We discussed a wide range of subjects in depth," Sugiyama said.

   The two countries do not have diplomatic ties and have long been at odds, with Tokyo pressing Pyongyang to come clean over the past abductions and its nuclear ambitions.

   In an interview with Japan's Kyodo News, the North's Song said on Nov. 17 he had "deep discussions" with his Japanese counterpart on the issue of Pyongyang's abductions. "We each gave our opinions about the abduction issue and held deep discussions," he said.

   Song said the overall talks were held "in a more sincere atmosphere than before," explaining that the mood was geared toward trying to resolve problems.

   He did not describe what North Korea asserted in the meeting, saying discussions are set to continue, and did not mention Pyongyang's previously stated position that the abduction issue has been fully resolved.

   Asked if North Korea has changed its stance over the abduction issue, Song said, "We are to discuss various issues, including the abduction issue. I want you to take my words as is." He did not give any reason for agreeing to continue consultations on the matter.

   The abductions by North Korea, which took place in the 1970s and 1980s, remain a major obstacle to normalizing ties between the two countries. Pyongyang promised in August 2008 to reinvestigate the issue but later walked away from that promise.

   The Japanese government has identified 17 nationals as having been abducted by North Korea, including five who were returned to Japan in 2002. Pyongyang has admitted to abducting or luring 13 to the country and says the other eight of those have died.

   A Japanese official suggested that during the latest talks, the Japanese side demanded Pyongyang reinvestigate the whereabouts of abductees who have not been returned to Japan.

   For its part, North Korea maintains Japan has not made up for its wartime aggression, and demands compensation and atonement.

   The latest talks became possible after an earlier exchange between mid-level Japanese and North Korean diplomats in August in Beijing.

   During the latest two-day meeting, North Korea is believed to have largely stuck to the position that the abduction issue has been fully resolved.

   North Korea has previously said the abduction issue, including the case of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977 when she was 13 and who Pyongyang says is now dead, has been fully resolved. North Korea's account of Yokota has been disputed by her parents in Japan.

   No tangible progress has been seen on the issue since 2002. Bilateral talks were suspended after August 2008 due to disputes over North Korea's abductions as well as its nuclear and missile programs.

   However, a view has emerged in Japan that Pyongyang may have softened its stance, in part because the country has allowed continued discussions of the issue, according to sources.

   North Korea and Japan also agreed to cooperate in collecting the remains of Japanese who died decades ago in what is now North Korea and on other issues concerning Japanese people who are now in North Korea, according to Japanese reports.

   Such issues include the temporary return to Japan of Japanese women who accompanied their ethnic Korean husbands to North Korea decades ago and the extradition from North Korea of Japanese who hijacked a Japan Airlines plane in 1970.

   The Japanese top negotiator said, "Both sides shared the opinion that we should hold the next consultations as early as possible, based on the view that the latest talks were beneficial to improving relations." The next round of talks will be held at the same senior-official level.

   The August talks in Beijing this year were the first intergovernmental talks held under North Korea's Kim Jong-un, who assumed power after his father Kim Jong-il died last December.

   They followed an agreement reached earlier in the month by the two nations' Red Cross officials on the collection 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.

   Analysts explain the talks answered the needs of both countries. North Korea counts on future economic aid from Japan as the impoverished nation takes steps to restructure its economy, and also hopes to keep the door open for possible dialogue with the United States.

   North Korea also appears to have had much to hope for from the talks as rejoining Japan for bilateral talks could be a useful diplomatic card to deal as it seeks to reopen dialogue with the United States, where President Barack Obama is set to begin his second four-year term next January.

   The North Korea-Japan talks could also be useful for the North in dealing with South Korea as it sees the ground being prepared for reopening dialogue with its neighbor with the impending departure in February of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who held to a hardline policy toward Pyongyang.