October 31, 2005

Japan, North Korea set for talks on improving ties

By Teruaki Ueno

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and North Korea kick off their
first full-fledged talks in more than three years on Thursday
seeking to resolve long-standing disputes that have blocked the
Asian neighbours from establishing diplomatic ties.

The talks in Beijing between foreign ministry bureaucrats
from the two countries come after North Korea agreed in
principle in September to dismantle its nuclear arms programs
in exchange for aid and better ties with Washington and Tokyo.

The Beijing meetings would be the first comprehensive talks
between Japan and North Korea since October 2002 when the two
sides met in Kuala Lumpur, officials and analysts said.

A failure to improve ties could hamper the six-party
process on North Korea's nuclear arms programs because Tokyo is
reluctant to give large-scale aid to Pyongyang in return for
abandoning its nuclear ambitions.

The next round of six-party talks among North and South
Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States is likely to
take place next week.

Tokyo has offered full-scale financial aid to impoverished
North Korea, but only after diplomatic ties are forged.

"As long as negotiations between Japan and North Korea are
stalled, it is difficult for the six-party talks on North
Korea's nuclear issues to move forward," said Hajime Izumi, a
Korea expert at the University of Shizuoka near Tokyo.

"If North Korea wants to receive everything it wants, it
will have to improve ties with Japan and the United States."

Japanese officials said Tokyo would press for progress on
the emotional issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North
Korea decades ago and would try to win a firm pledge from
Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear arms and missile programs.


For its part, North Korea is expected to press for the
settlement of issues stemming from Japan's harsh 35-year
colonial rule of the Korean peninsula until 1945.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologized for
Tokyo's actions at the 2002 summit with North Korean leader Kim
Jong-il, but he rejected Pyongyang's demand for reparations.

Instead, the two leaders agreed to discuss Japanese aid for
Pyongyang later. Japan gave South Korea $500 million when the
two countries normalised ties in 1965, and some analysts have
said Tokyo could provide up to $10 billion to the economically
crippled North.

Japanese officials said Tokyo would use the Beijing talks
to press Pyongyang to resolve the thorny issue of Japanese
citizens it kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies.

The feud over the kidnappings, the main obstacle to
normalising ties, intensified after DNA tests found that bones
handed over to Japanese diplomats a year ago were not those of
Japanese abductees.

North Korea has admitted abducting 13 people, five of whom
have returned to Japan with their children. Pyongyang says the
other eight are dead.

But Japan has been pressing for further information on the
eight and another three who Tokyo says were also kidnapped.

North Korea says the matter is closed, but during a
bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the last round of
six-party talks in September it told Japan it was considering
demands on the issue.

Former Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, who
was replaced in Monday's cabinet reshuffle, said last week that
Tokyo would use "dialogue and pressure" to persuade North Korea
to resolve the abduction issue.

"The abduction issue is a major theme for Japan, and Japan
cannot handle possible economic assistance and energy aid for
North Korea unless there is progress over the issue," Machimura
told South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon last week.

Relatives of the abductees and their political supporters
want Japan to harden its stance and impose economic sanctions
on North Korea to force the reclusive communist state to shed
more light on the abductees.

Pyongyang has warned that any imposition of sanctions by
Japan would be tantamount to a declaration of war.