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Japan’s role in six-party nuclear talks uncertain

North Korea has met with both the U.S. and South Korea on the resumption of the six-party talks aimed at its denuclearization. China and Russia have already spoken forcefully in favor of the talks’ resumption.

But what role Japan is willing to take should they resume is unclear.

This question is significant as the North has sought normalization with Japan for two decades to end its isolation and ease shortages in food and energy. Japan, along with the other members of the six-party talks, has also in the past promised aid to the North in exchange for the closing of the nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

But as the South and the U.S. appear to be warming to the idea of resuming the talks, relations between Japan and the North are as frosty as ever.

Kim Sung-han, professor of international relations at Korea University, believes Japan will not take a different position from its allies.

“Basically, Japan is on the same page with South Korea and the United States,” he said in a telephone interview. “Their government has not shown its own independent stance on the topic.”

Kim highlighted the mutual sentiment among the U.S. and South Korea that the North must first take actions such as allowing the return of inspectors to Yongbyon and halting its nuclear tests and missile launches.

“I don’t know if these should even be called ‘conditions,’ but it is definitely the attitude of the U.S. and South Korean governments saying the North needs to meet these qualifications,” he said. “So the U.S. government and South Korea keep pushing the North Korean government to fulfill the pre-conditions seriously while Japan is just quietly following these two governments’ opinion.”

However, one Japanese expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Henry L. Stimson Center, a global security think tank, said that getting Japan to offer aid to the North again will not be easy. At least some of that has to do with issues unrelated to the North, including Japan’s volatile political environment ― current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is their sixth since 2006.

And then there is the March 11 earthquake, its resulting deadly tsunami and the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor.

“Even without the disaster on 3/11, the Japanese domestic political situation has been making it difficult for Tokyo to engage in the six-party process (and all the other major diplomatic initiatives),” said Yuki Tatsumi, senior associate at Stimson Center, via email.

And finally there is the ongoing distrust between the two sides, which dates back at least to Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea.

The left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan swept into office in 2009 following a historic election that drummed out the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party. Tatsumi, though, dismissed the idea that the DPJ would regard the North any differently than the LDP.

This stems back to the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens between 1977 and 1983. Kim Jong-il himself apologized for 13 abductions in 2002, and the North later returned five abductees and produced evidence that the rest had died.

However, Japan later disputed whether a body North Korea returned to Japan was really Megumi Yokota ― a Japanese national kidnapped as a 13-year-old in 1977 who the North claims committed suicide in 1994. Japan also has said that as many as 12 of its citizens may still be in the North.

If so, this means the North’s admission and its actions since, intended to normalize relations between the two, have actually had the opposite effect.

“It makes it completely impossible for Japanese political leaders to appear to be ‘flexible’ toward North Korea,” Tatsumi said.

In July, a delegation of Japanese lawmakers, joined by relatives of the kidnapping victims, pleaded with the U.S. not to give food aid to North Korea. Aid, they said, would be diverted away from those in need and would take pressure off the regime to reveal the truth about the fate of those kidnapped.

At the time, the Japanese government reaffirmed that it had no plans to provide aid to the North.

Until there is a convincing effort by the North to reveal what happened to those Japanese citizens, Tatsumi said Japan will not be interested in providing additional aid, and the other nations involved in the process may have to proceed without their help.

“... It is simply not permissible for the Japanese government to appear ‘soft’ on North Korea, especially when there is no meaningful progress in the abduction issue,” she said.

“I think it is ultimately the responsibility for the Japanese government to define what the ‘resolution of the abduction issue’ means,” she said. Family members of the victims, such as Megumi Yokota, are likely to continue to insist that the abductees are still alive in North Korea and not settle for anything short of their return.

“But it is probably not realistic to hope for such kind of ‘resolution,’” said Tatsumi, who also doubts the North will be able to produce convincing evidence that the abductees died.

“If that is the case, the Japanese government must come up with a formulation by which it can begin to re-engage in the six-party talks while continuing to press North Korea on this issue,” she said. “But in the absence of that development, it is too politically poisonous for any Japanese leader to advocate for Japan to provide any types of aid to North Korea.”

Even if the six-party talks were to resume, Tatsumi said she does not expect any type of breakthrough in the near future.

By Rob York (

Monica Suk contributed to this report.
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