North Korea and Japan this week hold their first direct talks in four years with attention focused on whether they can show progress in overcoming deep-rooted suspicions that have hamstrung ties.
The two countries, at odds for decades, have never had formal diplomatic relations. When they do talk, they sometimes choose the neutral and geographically convenient venue of China’s capital.
For Japan, North Korea’s past abductions of its citizens, saber-rattling ballistic missile tests over Japanese territory and underground nuclear experiments have curbed progress on normalizing relations.
Meanwhile, North Korea criticizes Japan’s military alliance with the US, colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century and treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan.
The one-day working-level talks tomorrow in Beijing are also being closely watched for clues about the foreign policy of new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who took over after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in December last year.
Toshimitsu Shigemura, professor of Korean studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, expects little progress, saying Japan wants to discuss the abductions though it is unclear if Pyongyang will go along.
“If the North rejects Tokyo’s wishes, the talks could easily be deadlocked,” Shigemura said. “The North has different objectives from the meeting, which are money and food, while Tokyo’s priority is to talk about the kidnapping.”
Pyongyang admitted in 2002 its agents kidnapped Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies, by teaching them the Japanese language and culture.
It allowed five of them and their family members to go home, while claiming the rest died. Many Japanese believe some are alive.
Jin Matsubara, Japan’s state minister for the abduction issue, said on Friday last week that further progress could yield big dividends in humanitarian aid.
Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, expressed optimism the meeting could lay the groundwork for improved ties if Japan shows patience.
“North Korea needs money more than ever, and Japan has the idea it needs to improve relations with the North even on a restricted basis,” he said, adding that Tokyo could use the encounter as a “stepping stone” to discuss the abductions.
The meeting also comes as Japan is locked in a bitter territorial dispute with South Korea, North Korea’s archrival, over competing claims to small islands controlled by Seoul.
A visit to the islands — called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan — this month by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the first by a South Korean leader, has provoked anger in Japan.