Japan and North Korea will this month hold their first face-to-face talks in four years, Tokyo said Tuesday, in one of the most significant diplomatic forays for Kim Jong-Un since he became leader last year.
The talks would signal a slight thawing in frosty relations and will be carefully watched by Pyongyang’s neighbours and the West, anxious to see what path the untested young Kim chooses for the nuclear-armed North.
A senior Japanese official will lead the delegation for the meeting in Beijing, which comes after Red Cross societies from both sides met to discuss the repatriation of remains from Japan’s occupation of the peninsula.
“There are several issues between Japan and North Korea and after having discussions we have decided to hold inter-governmental talks soon,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters.
“We decided that preparatory talks will be held on August 29 in Beijing” when the subject matter for future meetings will be discussed.
“We have been working based on the principle of settling the unfortunate past and on restoring normal relations,” he said.
Fujimura said Tokyo had informed both Seoul and Washington about the meeting.
Many in the international community are keen for Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks on denuclearisation that it abandoned in December 2008.
The talks, which group the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China, envisage a peace treaty and other benefits if the North scraps its atomic weapons programme.
North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket on April 13 heightened regional tensions and sank a deal with the United States reached on February 29.
Under that agreement, the North had agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment plant and suspend nuclear and missile tests, while the United States promised 240,000 tonnes of food aid.
The United States and its allies described the rocket launch as a disguised missile test, while the North said its aim was only to put a satellite into orbit. The rocket failed soon after takeoff.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the United States had no problem with Japan’s talks with North Korea as nations negotiating in the six-party talks shared the same “general principles.”
“So, you know, we don’t have any issue with dialogue” between Japan and North Korea, she said.
Tokyo does not have relations with Pyongyang and their last meeting was held in 2008 when Japan’s foreign ministry says North Korea agreed to reopen investigations into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by agents to train its spies in Japanese language and customs.
The issue ignites strong feelings in Japan, where many feel Pyongyang’s 2002 admission on abductions was not the whole story and that more missing Japanese met their fate in North Korea after being kidnapped in the 1970s or 1980s.
Its perceived refusal to come clean has derailed efforts to normalise ties between the two countries.
Japanese Foreign minister Koichiro Gemba said the issue was a top priority.
“We would like to address the abduction issue in a resolute fashion,” he told reporters. “It is one of the most significant matters for us.”
Tuesday’s announcement came after a seemingly productive meeting between Red Cross societies last week, their first in a decade, in which they talked about the repatriation of remains of those who died in the North during and immediately after World War II.
Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 until 1945, and about 34,600 Japanese died in what is now North Korea after Soviet troops entered at the end of the war, according to the Japanese welfare ministry.
The remains of about 13,000 Japanese have been repatriated but around 21,000 others are believed to be buried in the North.