Abe experienced in dealing with North over abductees issue

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Abe experienced in dealing with North over abductees issue

Pyongyang is expected to set up a special panel to reinvestigate North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals as early as this week, part of its agreement with Tokyo late last month.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has negotiated with Pyongyang before on the issue while serving in the Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi administration, is keen on resolving the decades-old issue of North Korea’s abduction of its nationals once and for all.

Some 12 years ago, Koizumi visited Pyongyang and held a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il for a breakthrough on the unresolved abduction issue of Japanese nationals. Prior to that, North Korea refused to acknowledge its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

Koizumi was accompanied by Abe, who as at the time was chief negotiator on the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. As they waited at Pyongyang’s Paekhwawon State Guest House on the morning of Sept. 17, 2002, they received official confirmation from North Korea that eight Japanese nationals abducted to the North were dead ? but that five were alive.

A half an hour later, Koizumi’s summit with Kim began. In the morning session of the summit, the issue of the abductions was not raised by Kim, who led the discussion.

Before the afternoon session, Abe advised Koizumi that unless Kim Jong-il acknowledged the abductions and apologized for them, Koizumi must not sign a joint declaration. He also urged the prime minister to return to Japan immediately. The Japanese delegation reportedly was taken aback as Abe raised his voice, especially as Koizumi, worried that the room was bugged, had advised them that “important dialogue should take place through written communication.”

But Abe’s outburst may have affected the afternoon session.

Kim Jong-il acknowledged that the missing Japanese were, in fact, abductions and offered a “frank apology.”

This marked a rare apology by Pyongyang to the international community.

The abduction issue has prevented normalization of relations between the two countries for decades. Pyongyang admitted that its agents kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly to train as spies, and eventually allowed five of them to return to Japan. They claimed the rest had died. Tokyo maintains that 17 of its nationals were abducted and it believes that more are alive.

Abe’s tactics appeared to have paid off, and the two leaders signed the Pyongyang Declaration after the Koizumi-Kim summit.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, “There is probably nobody who can see through North Korean negotiating tactics better than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.”

But now Abe is betting on a verbal promise by Pyongyang to resolve the abductees issue for which it has promised to ease economic sanctions. North Korea is of course known for going back on its word. Japan and North Korea reached a similar agreement to reopen an investigation in 2008, which fell through.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said May 29 that a new investigation would be opened in about three weeks’ time.

Kyodo News reported yesterday that Japan and North Korea are scheduling another round of working-level talks on the abduction issue later this month, citing unnamed government sources.

Once the panel is set up, Japan is expected to ease a set of unilateral sanctions on the regime, such as those restricting travel and remittances between the two countries. In the next round of talks, Japan will prioritize finding 77 Japanese who were possibly abducted and the 12 officially acknowledged abductees who have not returned, the source told Kyodo.

Japan’s National Police Agency says there are at least 860 missing Japanese nationals “in which abduction by the North cannot be ruled out.”

The key negotiating card may be Megumi Yokota, who remains the symbolic figure of the abduction issue. Yokota was 13 when she was kidnapped by North Korean agents off the coast of Niigata Prefecture in 1977 on her way home from school. In 2004, North Korea handed over to Japan what it claimed were the cremated remains of Yokota, but DNA tests conducted in Japan proved otherwise.

In March, the parents of Yokota briefly met for the first time their 26-year-old granddaughter Kim Eun-gyong, who lives in Pyongyang, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

It has not been confirmed if Yokota is alive-and if she is, analysts point out she may be too close to the ruling family for her to be released.

But if Tokyo manages to negotiate for her daughter Kim, her husband and their 1-year-old son to be able to travel back and forth between Tokyo and Pyongyang, this may play a symbolic role in the negotiations and perhaps even pave way to normalization of ties.

BY KIM HYUN-KI, SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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