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Japan and North Korea End Talks With No Real Progress

Communist state won't agree to end its nuclear program, and Tokyo refuses to step up aid discussions. Abduction issue continues to fester.

October 31, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — North Korea defiantly refused to abandon its nuclear weapons program Wednesday, leaving little hope of an early resolution in its standoff with Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.

During two days of normalization talks between Japanese and North Korean officials in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, North Korea turned down Japan's request to end its uranium enrichment program. And Japan turned down the impoverished Communist country's bid to step up the talks that could lead to Tokyo's providing much-needed aid and cash.

"Negotiations will take a long time," said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a North Korea expert with Takushoku University here.

In a limited sign of progress, negotiators agreed to form a technical panel on security issues, with a first meeting set for November.

Arrangements for the two-day talks in Malaysia, aimed at establishing relations between the wary Northeast Asian neighbors, were made before the news broke in mid-October that North Korea admitted having a nuclear weapons program. Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and the two have never set reparation terms.

With the Bush administration taking a hard line against North Korea, hopes for a diplomatic resolution have shifted to third parties -- initially, South Korea and Japan, but possibly China or Russia further out -- as a way of altering the behavior of authorities in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Washington has refused to negotiate with the isolated, totalitarian state until North Korea agrees to unilaterally abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Seoul tried 10 days ago during talks in Pyongyang to persuade North Korea to back down, but that went nowhere.

Over the last two days, North Korea made clear that it welcomes Japan's money but doesn't view Tokyo as a serious partner on weapons discussions, preferring direct negotiations with Washington.

Further complicating matters between Japan and North Korea are the 13 Japanese whom Pyongyang recently admitted abducting to train spies during the 1970s and '80s. This is the issue closest to Japan's heart.

When this week's normalization talks were scheduled in September, senior Japanese and North Korean officials envisioned a quick trip home by the five Japanese still alive, in return for the promise of Japanese largess and full diplomatic relations.

The five are currently in Japan visiting relatives, and Japan's latest stance is that it won't send them back, insisting instead that North Korea let their families join them. Pyongyang has rejected this stand, accusing Tokyo of breaking its "promise" to return them and of being too emotional. The issue can't compare with the brutal colonial treatment it suffered under Japanese imperial rule, North Korea added.

"Japan is complicating the abduction issue due to their distrust of us," North Korean delegate Pak Ryong Yeon said in Malaysia, according to Associated Press.

Even before the nuclear standoff, Japanese public opinion had soured on normalization as more information emerged about the deaths of the eight others abducted by North Korea. Some of the deaths are viewed with suspicion because they are blamed on suicide asphyxiation, heart attacks involving people in their 20s and traffic accidents in a country with few vehicles.

The fundamental question is whether North Korea has any interest in a quick resolution of the nuclear issue. If Pyongyang follows its past pattern, it will try to turn up the heat, not lower it, hoping to spread fear and eventually to get paid to abandon its nuclear ambitions, some analysts say.

"We're in the initial stage of a slowly developing crisis," said Scott Snyder, Seoul representative of the Asia Foundation, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo. As of now, "there's a clear problem but no crisis," he said.

To create that crisis, Snyder said, North Korea might expel several International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors still in the country, then announce that it is retaking control of several plutonium fuel rods mothballed under a 1994 agreement.

Further escalation might involve transferring the rods -- enough to make five or six plutonium weapons -- to one of its research labs or enrichment facilities.

And a fourth, ultimately desperate, step might be to test-fire another rocket, like the August 1998 launch of a Taepodong ballistic missile over Japan.

Shigemura and Snyder said the much-touted unified stance toward North Korea by Tokyo, Seoul and Washington is an illusion. South Korea still believes it is possible to alter Pyongyang's behavior by using economic leverage. Washington doesn't. Tokyo is probably somewhere in between.

Washington and Tokyo believe that coordination with Seoul will be essentially impossible until at least December, when South Koreans go to the polls. Washington discounts Seoul's so-called sunshine policy as too accommodating to the North.

Top Japanese and South Korean political leaders view improved relations with the North as a way to boost their popularity back home. Washington feels the opposite.

"The reality of North Korea and the understanding of North Korea in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington is very different," Shigemura said.

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