By Nicholas Hamisevicz
Last week North Korea and Japan held their first government-to-government talks in four years. These discussions seemed to be a part of a summer of diplomatic outreach by North Korea. The meetings centered on handling the remains of Japanese soldiers that were killed on the Korean peninsula during World War II. Japan seemed to hope this interaction would lead to discussion about abductee issues and create room for dialogue on other problems between North Korea and Japan. The two sides agreed to meet again in the future; however, North Korea recently issued a statement saying that future discussions will just be about the remains of Japanese soldiers and nothing else. Japanese government officials remain optimistic that they will be able to talk about abductions in future meetings, yet Japan needs to be careful it does not fall into a similar language trap the United States did with North Korea on the February 29 agreement.
For Japan, the bilateral Red Cross meetings with North Korea discussing the remains of Japanese soldiers on the Korean peninsula opened up an opportunity to have a dialogue with the new regime in North Korea. Moreover, after the death of Kim Jong-il, “many abductees’ families argued that under the new leader there might be a long-waited opportunity for a breakthrough, and therefore, the Noda government should do everything possible to achieve concrete results.” Ambassador Kazuhiko Togo in writing on North Korea-Japan relations noted that Prime Minister Noda’s government had been using nuanced language when discussing North Korea following the death of Kim Jong-il potentially indicating a “desire to get beyond the fixation over abductions.” Abduction issues are a key factor for current interaction between the two countries. However, it seems there is an aspiration from some in Japan that these talks with North Korea can develop into an atmosphere for permanent official communication with North Korea.
Yet, as with almost all things involving North Korea, caution is needed. The new statement from North Korea’s foreign ministry argues that “government involvement is necessary for a satisfactory solution to the issue of remains of Japanese buried in the Korean soil,” and that North Korea did not accept abductees being the main issue for future talks. North Korea and Japan are still scheduled to meet in the future, and the statement does indicate that North Korea will continue to work with Japan over the issues of Japanese remains on Korean soil. Yet, the statement is a caution in potentially overselling an agreement with North Korea.
The United States had a similar problem with its February 29 deal. The U.S. had worked with the new North Korean regime to come up with an agreement that included a moratorium on missile launches. The U.S. thought the deal included space launches. North Korea clearly did not, and the deal broke down. Japan must be patient and continue trying to bring North Korea along in discussing a broader range of issues, including about abductees. However, miscalculating an agreement with North Korea can set relations back and damage opportunities for influencing the Kim Jong-un regime.