For the first time since 2008, the government has made strong moves to hold intergovernmental talks with North Korea, in which the issue of abducted Japanese may be discussed.
The government is seeking to make progress on the abduction issue, but North Korea broke a promise it made at bilateral working-level talks in June 2008 to reinvestigate the abductions.
At preliminary talks scheduled for August 29 in Beijing, the government will ask whether North Korea intends to legitimately improve bilateral relations with Japan.
“There has been a change in North Korea’s regime,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura during a hastily arranged press conference at the prime minister’s Office on Tuesday afternoon.
His remarks were referring to Kim Jong Un who took over as leader from his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December.
A source close to the Foreign Ministry said since around March the government has been making secret approaches to Pyongyang to resume intergovernmental talks.
The government approached North Korea under the assumption it would be easier to discuss the abduction issue with Kim Jong Un, who is not believed to have been involved in the abduction of Japanese.
As North Korea is suffering from food shortages, the ministry believes Pyongyang may be more open to the resumption of talks as it could be a precursor to aid from Japan.
These approaches by Tokyo probably helped both countries quickly reach an accord on the resumption of talks.
Last Thursday and Friday, the Red Cross societies of both nations held talks in Beijing for the first time in 10 years. Their discussion centred on the retrieval of remains of Japanese who died during and after World War II in North Korea’s territory and visits to their graves by bereaved family members.
Immediately after the talks, the embassies in Beijing of both countries began coordinating official bilateral talks, with the two sides agreeing on their resumption just after noon Tuesday, ministry sources said.
Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda has been informed in detail of the development about the talks in Beijing.
He reportedly made the decision to resume intergovernmental discussions, and told those close to him that there is no way to tell in advance how the talks will turn out, therefore they should be held.
Both countries agreed they need to discuss various bilateral issues in the upcoming talks.
North Korea must know the abduction issue is a pressing issue for Japan, a Japanese official said.
But a source close to the bilateral talks said Pyongyang has not promised to discuss the abductions of Japanese years ago by North Korean agents.
The source added that Japan should be resolute in its dealings with North Korea, and be prepared to halt the talks if the abduction issue is not included on the agenda.
The bilateral talks hold risks for Japan, as North Korea has repeatedly been dishonest over the abduction issue.
In November 2004, North Korea gave to Japan what it said were the cremated remains of Megumi Yokota, who was 13 years old when she was abducted and taken to North Korea in 1977. But Japan lodged a protest with Pyongyang after DNA analysis found that the remains belonged to someone else.
During bilateral working-level talks in Beijing in June 2008, North Korea promised it would reinvestigate abductions of Japanese in the 1970s and ’80s, who, according to Pyongyang, already died. But in September the same year, North Korea announced it was postponing the investigation.
North Korea’s new leader has not shown that he will compromise with Japan.
On April 13, shortly after Kim Jong Un assumed leadership, Pyongyang provoked the international community by launching a long-range missile, which it said was a “satellite.”
Sources close to the prime minister said while it is not clear how much North Korea can be trusted, talks are necessary. They said the upcoming talks will enable Japan to judge North Korea’s stance on the abduction issue.
Despite uncertainty about the talks, “Noda has too readily jumped at their resumption,” said a senior Cabinet official, who warned Japan could be taken advantage of by North Korea. Previous administrations have been rigid in their dealings with North Korea over the abduction issue.
Another senior official said Noda may have decided to resume the talks out of a desire to boost his administration.