Japan will go ahead with talks with North Korea on the abductions of Japanese nationals despite Pyongyang’s latest missile launches and concerns that Tokyo is being used by the hermit nation.
Through the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, Japan lodged a protest to North Korea for its firing of two Scud missiles into the Sea of Japan on June 29.
However, Abe administration officials apparently feel the missile launches were intended to keep South Korea and China on notice rather than Japan, and they made no move to postpone the July 1 meeting with North Korea on the abduction issue.
“The talks will take up the important humanitarian issue of abduction, and it will also be an important opportunity to discuss national security issues, such as nuclear weapons and missiles,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters on June 29.
In a speech in Akita on June 29, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said discussions between Japanese and North Korean officials are important from a humanitarian standpoint because they will be focused on Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang.
Directors-general of the foreign ministries of Japan and North Korea are scheduled to meet in Beijing on July 1 to discuss Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. Five have since been returned to Japan, but many others remain unaccounted for.
The North Korean side is expected to explain the progress made in establishing a special committee to investigate what has happened to the abductees.
If Japanese officials are confident that North Korea has been taking adequate steps, Tokyo could lift some of its economic sanctions against North Korea.
In an apparent move to improve the atmosphere before the July 1 meeting, Pyongyang allowed nine Japanese to visit the isolated nation from June 26 to pay respects at cemeteries where their relatives are buried.
Three days later, North Korea launched the Scud missiles from Wonsan. The missiles have an estimated range of about 500 kilometers, meaning they would not reach Japan. However, they could hit any part of South Korea.
“North Korea always acts with several objectives in mind,” a South Korean government source said. “The latest act may have included expressions of dissatisfaction at South Korea and China.”
North Korea was clearly displeased with South Korea’s firing exercise on June 26 near the northern limit line, an offshore extension of the military demarcation line between the two nations in the Yellow Sea. The training exercise was conducted without prior notification to North Korea.
Sources said the missile launches were also designed to express Pyongyang’s displeasure at Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to South Korea from July 3.
Xi has yet to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Xi’s scheduled trip would mark the first time since 1992, when China and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations, for a Chinese president to meet the South Korean president before meeting with the North Korean leader.
During their meeting, Xi and South Korean President Park Geun-hye are expected to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program as well as Park’s proposed unification policy.
“North Korea faced a situation where it had to send a message,” said a source knowledgeable about North Korean affairs.
Still, a Japanese government source said Pyongyang may have also had Tokyo in mind before it fired the missiles.
“We cannot rule out the possibility that it was a preliminary notice to Japan that North Korea is not totally satisfied with the likely negotiating cards Japanese officials could present in the discussions with their North Korean counterparts,” the source said.
Past Japanese administrations have postponed negotiations with North Korea for less provocative action.
In December 2012, the Democratic Party of Japan administration led by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called off talks after Japan was notified by North Korea of its plans to launch a ballistic missile.
Some within the current administration have raised questions about the Abe administration’s zeal to resolve the abduction issue, fearing it could widen a gap between Japan and its allies.
“Western nations are viewing Japan with some concern because it is being enticed by North Korea with the abduction issue,” a source in the prime minister’s office said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long pushed for a resolution of the abduction issue. It was one of his top priorities when he became prime minister for the first time in 2006.
“There are doubts about whether Japan can gain the understanding of the international community for continuing with discussions with North Korea even after it committed a provocative act,” another Japanese government source said. “There is also the danger that North Korea will take advantage of Japan’s overly eager stance on the abduction issue.”
Officials in South Korea and the United States have suggested that North Korea is using the abduction issue to drive a wedge between Japan, on one side, and South Korea and the United States, on the other.
“Japan’s will appears to be strong. It likely cannot back down on the abduction issue,” a South Korean government source said. “While we also understand its importance as a humanitarian issue, we also cannot erase suspicions that this could play into the hands of North Korea, which wants to upset the cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan.”
South Korean government officials have repeatedly warned against Japan going its own way on the abduction issue.
Washington has made clear that it intends to keep in close contact with Japan and would seek a resolution of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development programs along with the abduction issue.
(This article was compiled from reports by Toru Higashioka and Akihiko Kaise in Seoul, Yusuke Fukui and Nozomi Matsui in Tokyo and Atsushi Okudera in Washington.)
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