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Talks Between North Korea, Japan Sputter to Uneventful Close

  • Kurt Achin

Two days of talks between North Korea and Japan have drawn to a close in Mongolia with an agreement to meet again, but little else. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul the two sides had hoped to draw closer to normal diplomatic relations, but historical issues continue to block those efforts.

Talks ended between Japan and North Korea in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaator, with unfinished business from the 20th century continuing to put a chill on current-day diplomacy.

The past two days were the second set of rare bi-lateral talks the two countries have held this year, as part of a broader multi-national effort to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

Japan's ambassador to Mongolia, Yoshiki Mine, sought to put a positive spin on events.

He said the fact that the two countries could have such thorough discussions was itself a certain kind of progress.

North Korean delegate Kim Chol Ho described relations with Japan as being at their "lowest level." But he held out some hope for the future.

He says the two countries have different perspectives on the issue, and will keep talking as a means to close the gap.

Japan ruled North Korea harshly as a colony for 35 years in the early 20th century. The current talks, which aim to normalize ties, could bring North Korea hundreds of millions of dollars in Japanese aid as an indirect form of compensation for that era.

But Japan says North Korea must provide more concrete information about citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s. North Korea has admitted kidnapping 13 Japanese nationals, of which five have returned to Japan. Pyongyang says the other eight are dead, and considers the case closed.

Asian Studies Professor Jeffrey Kingston of Tokyo's Temple University says Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is under strong political pressure to demand North Korean action on the abduction issue.

"This is the issue that catapulted him into the premiership. He became famous because of his hard line on North Korea," he said. "However, now Japan has backed itself into a corner."

Kingston believes a resolution to the abduction issue will probably only be possible when Japan has a new prime minister, who can show more flexibility on the issue. He says Tokyo's intense focus on the issue is weakening its role in multi-national nuclear-weapons talks.

"The hard-line position of Abe has really sidelined Japan from the six-party talks. It has been very difficult to make any distinct sort of progress," he said.

Japan is expected to join the two Koreas, China, Russia, and the United States at those six-nation talks this month in Beijing. Japan and North Korea says they will hold more bilateral talks, but have not announced a date.

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