Japan, N. Korea aim for higher-level talks soon

Kelly Olsen
North Korean diplomats arrive for talks with their Japanese counterparts at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on August 29. Japan and North Korea hope to soon hold talks which could cover Pyongyang's past abduction of Tokyo's citizens, a Japanese official said Friday after three days of preparatory discussions in Beijing

Japan and North Korea hope to soon hold talks which could cover Pyongyang's past abduction of Tokyo's citizens, a Japanese official said Friday after three days of preparatory discussions in Beijing.

The two will iron out final details to conduct higher-level talks in the Chinese capital at "as early a time as possible", said the official, who under briefing rules could only be described as connected to Japan's foreign ministry.

This week's results would be taken back to Tokyo and Pyongyang for further discussion, he said, 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.

This week's encounters, by contrast, were conducted by low-level diplomats and were characterised by the official as "matter-of-fact", "frank" and "preparatory".

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

He added the government welcomed that they "have progressed toward bringing matters of mutual concern to discussions at a next, higher level".

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.

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.

Japan has said North Korea agreed to reopen investigations into the fate of abducted Japanese when the two sides last met in 2008.

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

This week's meetings were closely watched for any clues as to whether North Korea's foreign policy could change under new leader Kim Jong-Un, who took power after his father Kim Jong-Il died in December.

Tokyo is also worried about security issues related to North Korea, which carried out underground nuclear test blasts 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 broke up shortly after takeoff.

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

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

Yang Moo-Jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, was optimistic about the potential for the talks.

"Both North Korea and Japan appear to be thinking it is necessary to maintain a channel of dialogue", he said.

"There is no reason for the two sides not to hold higher-level talks as North Korea now badly needs foreign aid."

Yang also said that if Japan and North Korea agree to hold high-level talks, the agenda could include the abduction issue, or it could at least be discussed unofficially between their chief delegates.

Another pending issue involves the remains of Japanese who died in North Korea during and shortly after World War II. The remains of about 13,000 have been sent back but about 21,000 are believed to be still buried there.