Editorial: Informal talks between Japan and North Korea

Will they lead to a resolution of the abduction issue?

In conjunction with a meeting between Japanese and North Korean Red Cross officials, government officials from the two countries held informal talks on the sidelines during which they apparently discussed the issue of Japanese citizens who were abducted to North Korea.

No official talks between the two governments have been held since November 2012. Talks were broken off the following month after North Korea carried out what was effectively the launch of a missile.

The meeting between Red Cross officials, which provided the impetus for the unofficial talks, was reportedly held at the request of North Korea. In light of past developments, it seems rather sudden.

Is it possible that this move will lead to a resolution of the abduction issue? Even if it holds official talks, the Japanese government must carefully assess the situation.

These days the situation in North Korea seems even more chaotic than before. Last December, Jang Sung Taek, former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, was executed. Jang was believed to be the second most powerful person in North Korea after Kim Jong Un. Since last month, North Korea has filed a number of short-range ballistic missiles off its eastern coast. This is believed to be a countervailing measure to the joint military exercises being conducted by the United States and South Korea.

So why did North Korea step up its efforts to reach out to Japan at a time like this? It may be seen as an effort to shake up the cooperative relations between the nations participating in the six-party talks, which are aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The goal is to undermine one element of the coalition against North Korea.

North Korea is believed to seek to maintain the present political regime through direct dialogue with the U.S. But the U.S. has indicated that it will not sit down at the table with North Korea unless it demonstrates concrete efforts toward denuclearization through the six-party talks. And China, which has supported North Korea, has recently taken a tougher line.

Precisely because of these circumstances, North Korea’s latest move can be seen as an attempt to make overtures to Japan, which is faced with the problem of the abductions. Japan’s relations with the U.S. as well as China and South Korea are strained because of issues related to history. North Korea may be trying to drive a wedge between Japan and the U.S.

With regard to the informal talks, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said yesterday, “It was meaningful to some extent that the two governments exchanged opinions for the first time in 16 months.” But he also indicated that it was too soon to resume formal talks between the two governments. North Korea has continued to insist that the abduction problem has been resolved. So it’s no surprise that Mr. Kishida believes it unlikely that North Korea’s stance will change any time soon and is cautious with regard to future talks.

The U.S. also seems to be getting wary. In a briefing on March 3, Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the State Department said, “We support Japanese efforts to resolve outstanding issues, whether that’s the abductions issue or any other in a transparent manner.” Her use of the word “transparent” suggests a desire for Japan to refrain from taking action in secret.

Looking at the international community, it’s clear that a new movement is developing. Last month the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea released its final report in which it denounced North Korea for its “crimes against humanity.” The commission also recommended that the U.N. Security Council refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court and set up a special tribunal for North Korea.

The families of the abductees are growing old. It goes without saying that the resolution of this issue is an urgent matter. In that sense, ways must be found to continue the talks with North Korea.

But looking at the current international situation, seeking a solution to the abduction problem by itself will not necessarily be a good move for Japan. Cooperation with the international community is extremely important.

The international community is in agreement that the problem of North Korea should be resolved through the six-party talks. It is vital that Japan improve its relations with both China and South Korea.

(Originally published on March 5, 2014)