Japan will fund study trips for North Koreans

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Japan will fund study trips for North Koreans

Japan agreed to fund study trips abroad for North Korean economic officials and scholars after a “Track 1.5” meeting in Mongolia last month, according to a source familiar with the North’s diplomatic activities.

The source, requesting anonymity, told the JoongAng Ilbo Wednesday that North Korean officials met members of a Japanese delegation in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar around Aug. 20 and discussed ways to enhance bilateral economic cooperation.

The North’s officials were from the Ministry of External Economic Relations, while the Japanese delegation was made up of figures from a research group sponsored by the Japan Business Federation, the source said.

“This group [of Japanese researchers] conducts frequent consultations while maintaining an organic relationship with the Japanese government, so while the talks were a Track 1.5 dialogue, the Japanese government will be well aware of the contents of that discussion,” the source said.

The Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, is one of the country’s most prominent organizations representing business interests and has previously sponsored groups interested in economic relations with North Korea. One of these recipients of sponsorship, a group called the East Asia Trade Research Board, conducted a visit to North Korea in 2000.

The Japanese government too has shown great interest in entering formal diplomatic negotiations with North Korea but so far has been met with few positive signals from Pyongyang. Nonetheless, Japanese intelligence is believed to have contacted the North on two occasions in July in Da Nang, Vietnam, and Ulaanbaatar this month, while the Japanese Foreign Ministry discussed with North Koreans officials in China about holding a possible bilateral summit. Last June, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “unconditionally.” The frequent contact testifies to Tokyo’s attempt at dangling economic promises in front of Pyongyang.

According to the source, the North Korean officials in Ulaanbaatar wanted to discuss specific ways the two countries could cooperate economically once international sanctions on the North’s economy had been lifted. But the Japanese delegation responded with some concern that they could not move forward with investment or exchanges with the North under the present circumstances, the source explained.

The two sides, however, did agree to Japanese financial support for North Korean economic officials and scholars to study abroad and settled to decide on the size and timing of such trips at a later date.

Despite the official warnings the Japanese government has given to its citizens about interacting with the North, private ties between the two countries appear to be increasing recently. Last Saturday, a delegation of 60 private Japanese citizens, led by Shingo Kanemaru, the son of late Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Shin Kanemaru, arrived in Pyongyang carrying a message from Tokyo. The delegation, which stayed in the North until Thursday, met with Ryu Myong-son, the chairman of the DPRK-Japan Friendship Association, though it is not yet known what was discussed. The visit was seen as a significant event in bilateral ties, particularly given the role played by Shingo Kanemaru’s father, the political behemoth Shin Kanemaru, in advancing the two countries’ relationship.

Later this month, a delegation of the Japan Medical Association, led by the chair of the group’s house of delegates Mitsuaki Maseki, is set to visit North Korea.

Some analysts say North Korea may be trying to maximize its interests amid continued diplomatic strain between Japan and South Korea by inching closer to Tokyo while keeping a distance from Seoul.

Pointing out that Pyongyang has strongly protested South Korea’s deployment of new F-35A stealth fighter jets from the United States, Chon Hyun-joon, a professor of politics at South Korea’s Kookmin University, said it is hypocritical for the North to take issue with Seoul’s purchase of 40 F-35s while cozying up to Tokyo, which chose to import threefold that amount, a total of 147 F-35 jets, from the United States.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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