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Hope and suspicion in Tokyo over Kim Jong Un's overture for talks

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe fields reporters’ questions after his telephone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the prime minister’s office on April 29, 2018. (Mainichi)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told South Korean President Moon Jae-in in their summit meeting on April 27 that he is ready to talk with Japanese officials "anytime." This remark, conveyed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by President Moon in their telephone conversation on April 29, has brought both hope and suspicion to Tokyo.

While the resumption of Japan-North Korea talks would raise the prospect of solving the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang, Kim's apparently new position is seen by some in the Japanese government as a maneuver to talk Tokyo into lifting sanctions on the North.

Prime Minister Abe told reporters at his office on April 29 that he and President Moon agreed to work together so that North Korea will take "concrete actions." He stopped short of reiterating his policy of continuous pressure and encouraged the North to commit to denuclearization.

The premier apparently adjusted his pressure tactic against Pyongyang in a bid to resume bilateral talks on abductees, with Kim's apparent willingness to negotiate with Japan. A source close to Abe explained, "The time to keep saying to apply pressure is over following the Japan-U.S. summit meeting (in mid-April) and now is the time to think about how to bring the (abduction) issue to a conclusion."

According to South Korea, Moon told Kim that Abe wants the normalization of Japan-North Korea diplomatic relations based on "the settlement of past history." Recently, Abe repeatedly referred to the Pyongyang Declaration of 2002, in which Tokyo and Pyongyang agreed to normalize their ties by settling "the unfortunate past" including Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and the abduction issue. His strategy is to demand a solution of the abduction issue first if the North wants postwar compensation and economic support from Japan to focus on economic growth.

But many in the Japanese government think Pyongyang still maintains the position that the abduction issue has been solved, although it is not clear what the two Korean leaders discussed on the matter in their summit. Some say that the North, by promoting direct talks with the leaders of South Korea and the United States, is now poised to lure Japan into easing sanctions by taking a conciliatory position.

"Perhaps they (the North Koreans) are just ready to listen to what Japan needs to say. But we will not compromise on the abduction issue, and will demand its resolution once the discussion begins," said a high-ranking Japanese administration official.

Reopening talks with the North to break the current deadlock in the bilateral relations is an option with solid support in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). When asked about the possibility of a Tokyo-Pyongyang summit meeting, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai told reporters in St. Petersburg in Russia that "nothing will proceed without talks."

However, a government official sounded a cautious note on holding such talks because no outcome on the abduction issue is guaranteed at this point of time and "we will face criticism if a summit bears no fruit." But a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said that "it is a big issue that needs a political decision," suggesting that a political initiative is required.

As Prime Minister Abe requested U.S. President Donald Trump raise the abduction issue in his upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un, Japanese officials hope that feedback from that summit would help them gauge Kim's thinking on the abduction issue more precisely and craft their response to Pyongyang's diplomatic overture.

North Korea, despite its leader's apparent willingness to talk with Tokyo, nevertheless stepped up its verbal attacks on Japan. Kim has launched so-called "smile diplomacy" by meeting with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts as well as scheduling a summit with Trump and possibly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Tokyo is still kept at an arm's length.

"If Japan continues its hateful actions, it will end up building a high wall on its road to Pyongyang, and become isolated and shunned in the world," declared the Rodong Shinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers' Party of Korea headed by Kim. The criticism filled with frustration against Japan targeted Tokyo's stance of applying "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang despite North Korea's announcement of suspending nuclear tests and the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Similar rhetoric critical of the Abe administration or Japan is seen almost daily in reports from North Korea's state media. They say that Japan is "out of step from positive regional changes" and "has become isolated." This is an indication of the North's anger at Japan's position on the nuclear and missile issues, which is tougher than Washington's or Seoul's stance, as well as Tokyo's insistence on solving the abduction issue.

Some hopes for talks with Japan, however, are seen in the official media. Expressions such as the "road to Pyongyang" seem to indicate North Korea's thinking that if dialogue with relevant countries continues one after another then resuming negotiations with Japan will become possible in the not so distant future. The North Korean reports critical of Japan apparently are designed to create the impression that Japan is trailing its peers and thus making Pyongyang's position stronger.

Japan-North Korea relations advanced even when Pyongyang had frosty ties with Washington under the Obama administration. The two countries reached the Stockholm Agreement in May 2014, where the North promised to reopen an investigation into the abduction issue. That promise, however, was put on the shelf when Japan imposed sanctions in February 2016 in response to North Korea's nuclear and missile tests.

Professor Satoru Miyamoto of Seigakuin University, a specialist on North Korean politics, says Pyongyang has "the willingness to improve its relationship with Japan in a bid to normalize bilateral ties and thus receive economic cooperation," and its fundamental position on future negotiations with Japan remains the same as in the past. Miyamoto also foresees the potential of the two countries reverting to the status before February of 2016 "if the nuclear and missile issues, which stood in the way of implementing the Stockholm Agreement, head toward a settlement as a result of the U.S.-North Korea summit and other factors."

(Japanese original by Yusuke Tanabe and Kazumasa Kawabe, Political News Department, and Koichi Yonemura, Seoul Bureau)

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