Diplomats from Japan and North Korea will meet in Beijing on Aug. 29 for their first bilateral talks since August 2008.
The main topic on the agenda is the retrieval of remains of Japanese who died in what is now North Korean territory around the end of World War II, along with visits to the graves of Japanese in North Korea by their relatives.
The Japanese government should take this opportunity to discuss a wide range of bilateral issues, including North Korea's past abductions of Japanese citizens.
The decision to have the meeting came after talks in Beijing last week between the Red Cross societies of the respective countries over the retrieval of remains.
Initially, the Japanese government showed no enthusiasm for the contact between the two Red Cross societies.
But since Pyongyang displayed a willingness to resume diplomatic talks without a demand for economic aid, the Japanese government decided it had nothing to lose by reopening official talks with North Korea.
North Korea's new regime led by Kim Jong Un has shown no sign that it intends to change its "military first" policy.
At the same time, North Korea continues to face chronic food shortages and economic stagnation. Kim cited these as key policy challenges.
In an effort to stave off disaster, Kim’s close aide and uncle, Jang Song Thaek, recently visited China to discuss bilateral economic cooperation.
North Korea also has strained relations with the United States and South Korea. Thus, it is not hard to guess why Pyongyang is so eager to resume talks with Japan: It clearly intends to extract some sort of economic assistance from Tokyo.
In August 2008, North Korea promised to make a fresh investigation into the fate of Japanese nationals it abducted decades ago. But it quickly put the investigation on hold, citing the change of Japan’s prime minister.
North Korea has since stated that the abduction issue has been resolved and no longer exists.
For its part, Japan has run out of options in imposing more economic sanctions against North Korea. It has already done all that it can. Contacts between the two countries have been in deadlock for some time. Negotiations with the isolated and secluded regime in Pyongyang are never smooth.
North Korea may demand an exorbitant reward for allowing the retrieval of the remains of Japanese who died in North Korea and visits to grave sites by Japanese relatives.
And there is no guarantee that Pyongyang will change its position on the abduction issue in any meaningful way.
Still, there can be no progress toward solving this and other sensitive issues unless both sides come to the negotiation table.
As for North Korea, it will be unable to carve out a better future for itself if it does not repair its soured ties with Japan, the United States and South Korea, and continues to remain utterly dependent on China.
The only realistic option for the Japanese government is to keep trying to convince North Korea to take positive diplomatic steps to solve the issue of its nuclear and missile programs as well as the abduction dispute with Japan.
Japan must keep stressing that such efforts would lead to the normalization of full diplomatic relations and bilateral economic cooperation.
Japan should also try to pave the way for a resumption of six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. The last talks were held in 2008. Aside from Japan, the other parties are North Korea, the United States, China, Russia and South Korea.
Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of the late Kim Jong Il’s historic meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in which the North Korean leader admitted his country’s past abductions of Japanese citizens.
The Noda administration needs to commit itself to tenacious negotiations with North Korea.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 16
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