Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.10.23

Resumption of Talks with North Korea

Talks between the governments of Japan and North Korea resumed in Beijing on August 29th. As prior sessions were held four years ago, in 2008, the resumption of talks drew much attention. There were several points to note.

Attending the talks were the Directors of each country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were preliminary consultations regarding the agenda for the upcoming talks at the level of the Director Generals. This approach is used in diplomacy when parties are far apart on the issues to include in an agenda. Even though the talks are conducted at a low level of formality, on occasion, important issues may, in fact, be decided.

The first day's preliminary consultation was held at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, and was attended by Keiichi Ono, Director of Northeast Asia Division, Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Director Ryu Song Il from the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Japanese side requested that the issue of the North's abduction of Japanese citizens be included in the agenda for the Director Generals talks. The consultation continued to August 30th - this time at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing - but that session was inconclusive; therefore, the consultation continued to the morning of the 31st. The fact that so much time was spent on the talks appears to suggest that they were meaningful. The media reported that the two governments had agreed to talk about the abduction issue in earnest, but, regrettably, it seems that the parties were quite far apart.

Besides the abduction issue, there are many important unresolved issues between the two countries. Toward the end of World War II, many Japanese lost their lives in what is now North Korea. Many of their remains, and their tombs, are still there. On this issue, the Japanese Red Cross Society and the North Korean Red Cross Society met first on August 9th and 10th, and they agreed to include their respective governments in any further discussion. Accordingly, to resolve the issue, the two governments would need to set up a framework for discussions. If this actually had been realized, that would have, after a long period of time, represented progress between the two countries.

That did not happen, however. This was because North Korea was dissatisfied about the treatment of the abduction issue at the preliminary meeting, as was clearly indicated by Director Ryu Song Il avoiding altogether any reference to the issue after the meeting. Moreover, some time later, North Korea began asserting once again that the abduction issue had already been resolved. This stance leaves no room for negotiation.

How should we interpret this development? One may well wonder, "How dare the party that conducted the abductions claim that it was dissatisfied?". I suspect, however, that the Japanese side also, at least to an extent, bears some responsibility for the result. Before the preliminary talks, the Japanese side increasingly expected that, as a result of the talks, some of the abductees may return to Japan. This turned out to be based on a groundless rumor, as indicated by the aforementioned remark by Ryu Song Il. North Korea was, in fact, being cooperative regarding the return of the remains and visits to the cemetery where they were buried. This did not necessarily mean that North Korea also would be willing and prepared to return the abductees.

Needless to say, North Korea bears the blame for the confusion. Only if it is willing to share information, can it avoid misunderstandings. Furthermore, its prior record of abductions and engaging in acts of terrorism only adds to its worsening image.

The Japanese side also needs to reconsider its approach to North Korea. For example, some suggest that being tough on North Korea will result in making progress on the issues, but I do not share this view. If one's hope is to negotiate, being tough will only have a negative effect. When dealing with a tough negotiating partner on important issues, one needs to be fair and cordial to come to an understanding with the partner. Being tough in negotiations is risky.

Before the preliminary meeting, Kenji Fujimoto, the former chef for Kim Jong Il, visited North Korea after a long absence from the country. It is reported that Fujimoto asked First Chairman Kim Jong Un to solve the abduction issue, but, if so, was that appropriate? If this was based on the hope that "North Korea is almost ready to determine to return the abductees to Japan, so having Fujimoto ask Kim Jong Un to allow their return," rethinking of that approach is necessary. In fact, Fujimoto's request that he be allowed to make a second visit to Pyongyang has been denied by North Korea, and that is cause for concern.

Although North Korea has shown no interest in addressing the abduction issue, the Pyongyang Declaration between Japan and North Korea regarding talks for normalizing diplomatic relations and resolving security issues including nuclear and missiles, states that the North Korean government's position to implement the Declaration is unchanged today and into the future. After a few days of the preliminary talks, North Korea proposed the talks at the Director General level.

North Korea's new leader, First Chairman Kim Jong Un, is a young man in his 20s, but it seems that his policies are now being gradually implemented. Negotiations with North Korea under this new leader are only beginning. Japan needs to be extremely careful in attempting to engage in negotiations with North Korea, especially because Japan possess only a very limited amount of reliable information.