Red Cross officials from Pyongyang and Tokyo on Monday held their first talks in nearly two years in China to discuss the return of the remains of Japanese nationals who died in the communist country during Japan’s occupation of the peninsula.
A four-member delegation from each side gathered in the northeastern city of Shenyang for the three-day meeting led by Ri Ho-rim, secretary-general of the North Korean Red Cross’ central committee, and Osamu Tasaka, director-general of the Japanese Red Cross’ international department. The two last met in Beijing in August 2012.
“There has been much change and progress since the talks in Beijing,” Ri said as the meeting convened, citing a number of working-level governmental dialogues and a visit to Pyongyang by some families of deceased Japanese nationals.
“This meeting bears a greater importance and higher social interests in light of the participation of government officials from the two countries.”
Yu Song-il, director of Japanese affairs at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, and his Japanese counterpart Keiichi Ono are also taking part in the talks.
Tasaka, in response, highlighted the significance of bilateral Red Cross projects, expressing appreciation in particular over the North’s donation of $1 million after the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami that ravaged eastern Japan.
“The funds greatly helped stabilize the livelihoods of the victims and smoothly carry out relief programs,” he added.
The meeting came amid speculation that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to reopen negotiations over the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North decades ago, possibly in a future summit. The nationalist premier has displayed a resolve to tackle the long-festering issue since taking office in December 2012.
But the talks would be confined to the repatriation of remains of the deceased people, a senior official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said, citing Japanese officials who informed their South Korean counterparts of the meeting in advance.
In January, Junichi Ihara, director general for Asian and Oceanian affairs at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and two other officials reportedly met with three working-level North Korean officials in Hanoi.
Another news report emerged last month that Isao Iijima, a top Abe aide, also held a meeting with North Korean officials in China in October.
While advising former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Iijima accompanied him on two trips to Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004, during which then-North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il admitted that his agents had abducted 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Five of them returned home shortly after the landmark summits.
The regime claims the eight others have died, while Tokyo demands more information on them and others believed to have been taken to the North to teach the Japanese language and customs to spies.
After Iijima traveled to Pyongyang last May, he reportedly recommended Abe hold talks with incumbent leader Kim Jong-un.
Seoul officials said they were “closely monitoring the situation” while again cautioning against any unilateral decisions by Japan regarding the talks.
South Korea and the U.S., a key ally of Japan, have been stressing the need for the three countries to remain united on the North Korea front. They are part of a stalled six-nation forum on the denuclearization of the wayward state.
At a joint news conference last month with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said the covert North Korea-Japan contact may impact the talks between the other members of the six-party talks. “I don’t think it will be very helpful or conducive for the talks,” he said.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)