Japan and North Korea ended three days of talks in Beijing on Aug. 31 with agreement to hold a second round of talks on a range of bilateral issues, including Pyongyang's past abductions of Japanese citizens.
Last week's talks were held at the level of Foreign Ministry division chiefs. The next will be between officials from the higher bureau chief level. Those talks will be held soon, possibly in September.
In August 2008, North Korea promised to reopen an investigation into the fate of Japanese nationals it abducted decades ago. But the secluded communist regime then unilaterally postponed the promised probe, causing inter-governmental talks to be suspended.
It is still unclear what stance the North will adopt in future talks. But given the country's recalcitrant and non-compliant attitude in the past, its decision to come to the negotiating table is a positive step forward at least.
The abduction issue is an extremely important one that concerns the lives of Japanese nationals.
Japanese negotiators need to ensure that Pyongyang starts a fresh investigation and produces results acceptable to Japan. Achieving that goal will probably require lengthy, grueling negotiations.
That is, needless to say, not the only bilateral issue Japan and North Korea need to tackle and solve.
They must also deal with humanitarian issues such as the return of the remains of Japanese who died in North Korea around the end of World War II, and North Korea allowing the return of its citizens' Japanese wives. The agenda must also include security issues, such as North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile development programs. In addition, the two countries must tackle some outstanding war-era questions: These must be resolved if a formal diplomatic relationship is to be established.
Tokyo and Pyongyang need to grapple with all these sticky issues through comprehensive talks.
North Korea would not have embarked on a new round of negotiations with Japan if it had not expected any gain.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said solving the severe food shortage in his country is a top policy priority. That probably means Pyongyang will ask for some sort of economic aid from Japan.
The challenge for the negotiators is how to find common ground despite wide differences in the aims of the two governments. The negotiations will be arduous and complicated, demanding tenacious efforts by the negotiators.
Some key issues cannot be solved through bilateral talks alone. It is vital for Japan to cooperate with the other members of the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, especially South Korea.
From this point of view, it is obvious that Japan and South Korea should avoid any further deterioration of their already strained relations.
North Korea's move to seek fresh talks with Japan indicates that the Kim Jong Un regime has gained control over domestic politics, at least to a certain extent, and is beginning to pay more attention to the country’s relations with the rest of the world.
Pyongyang's actions during the forthcoming talks will strongly reflect the young leader's thoughts and intentions.
The talks will offer a good opportunity to see whether the new regime will move toward opening the isolated country to the world or adhere to the past policy of prioritizing its military power, as pursued by the late Kim Jong Il, the current leader's father.
A generational shift in the leadership offers a good chance of launching major reforms.
Japan should not allow itself to entertain excessive expectations of the talks with the notoriously unpredictable North Korea. But Tokyo should spare no effort in pressing the closed regime to open itself to the world through the talks.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 1
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