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Japan, NKorea Hold Face-to-Face Talks

Wednesday, 29 Aug 2012 08:52 AM


BEIJING — Japan and North Korea Wednesday held their first face-to-face talks in four years, in an attempt to lay the groundwork to overcome decades of mutual distrust.

Ties between the two countries have long been strained, though they periodically try to resume dialogue with the ultimate — and so far elusive — goal of establishing formal diplomatic relations.

The talks — which Japan has described as preparatory — came as governments and analysts seek clues about the emerging foreign policy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, who took over the communist state after his father Kim Jong-Il died in December.

After the meeting, held in Beijing, a Japanese official described the discussions as "matter-of-fact and frank."

The official, who could only be identified as being connected with Japan's foreign ministry, said the two countries would be reporting back to their governments on the discussions.

They had yet to decide if they would meet again Thursday though were working in that direction, said the official, who declined to provide details on the positions expressed at the meeting.

The issues that have long bedevilled Japan-North Korea relations remain largely the same as before the death of Kim Jong-Il so it is unclear how much, if any, progress can be made.

Tokyo continues to want further answers regarding the fate of citizens abducted by North Korean agents, amid suspicions in Japan that Pyongyang has failed to provide all the information it has.

Secretive North Korea admitted in 2002 its agents kidnapped Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies by teaching Japanese language and culture, and later allowed five of them and their families to return home.

It said another eight died, though many in Japan hold out hope they remain alive. There are also suspicions that Pyongyang's agents abducted more Japanese than was admitted.

Japan says North Korea agreed to reopen investigations into the fate of abducted Japanese when the two sides last met in 2008.

From a security standpoint, Japan also remains wary of North Korea's past ballistic missile tests over its territory or aimed at its airspace as well as underground nuclear experiments in 2006 and 2009 and threats of more.

North Korea, meanwhile, craves trade with Japan yet blasts its military alliance with the United States, colonization of the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century, and treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan.

The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's media mouthpiece, in a commentary Tuesday criticized Japan for its past colonialism.

"Japan not only grabbed the territory, culture, and natural resources of the Korean nation but deprived Koreans of even their names," it said. "These atrocities were recorded as the most barbarous and disgraceful aggression in human history."

Heavily militarized and largely impoverished North Korea — prone to damage from natural disasters such as flooding due to poor infrastructure and deforestation — struggles to feed its people.

Jin Matsubara, Japan's state minister for the abduction issue, said last week that progress in that area could yield big dividends in humanitarian aid.

Another pending issue involves the remains of Japanese who died in North Korea during and shortly after World War II. The remains of about 13,000 have been sent back but about 21,000 are believed still buried there.

A group of Japanese went to North Korea this week on a 10-day visit to search for such remains.

Red Cross societies from the two countries held talks in Beijing earlier this month, their first in a decade, and discussed the repatriation of remains.

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