Between N. Korea and Japan, grudges to bear
Talks between old enemies start - and stop - with disagreements over issues of mostly symbolic importance.
Among the trinity of erstwhile enemies with whom North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is seeking to normalize relations - the US, South Korea, and Japan - mending fences with Tokyo is beginning to look like the most complicated of the three.Skip to next paragraph
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Talks between the two countries, renewed in April after an eight-year hiatus, came to an end yesterday with much posturing and little progress. Negotiators appear to be locked at a level of largely symbolic and emotional issues that fail to address broader security concerns in East Asia, where many remain uneasy about North Korea's missile program.
And compared to the hugging and toasting that went on during the North-South Korea summit earlier this summer, marking a kind of global coming-out party for Mr. Kim - it was clear that talks between North Korea and Japan lack the warm-and-fuzzy feeling of reunited brothers - instead portraying an image of grudge-bearing neighbors.
Japanese press described the head of the delegation from Pyongyang as looking rather unhappy during the talks, complaining that the Japanese "wouldn't listen" to them and that nothing was done to turn down the volume on the loudspeakers set up by right-wing protesters outside the negotiating rooms.
North Korea says that before they establish relations with Japan, the first order of business must be an apology for Japan's pre-World War II occupation of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea also wants a substantial compensation package for Japan's colonization of the country between 1910 and 1945. And Japan has presented its own prerequisite for progress: information on the whereabouts of 10 of its citizens it claims North Korea abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Standoffish meetings and political nonstarters may be the pace at which Japan is prepared to move, in part as a nod to the "go slow" attitude of many policymakers in Washington toward relations with North Korea. And Kim Jong Il's ability to demand such a high price for dtente with Japan draws a picture of a once-isolated regime sitting in an unprecedentedly comfortable position in the aftermath of June's successful Koreas summit in Pyongyang.
"One-time confrontation and distrust between the nations cannot be resolved in one or two meetings between the countries," says Jong Thae-hwa, the head of the North Korean delegation, "but the bilateral talks are moving in a positive direction."
North Korean memories of Japan are largely negative, predating the 20th-century colonial period and spanning generations. Now, North Korea says it will not move forward in establishing relations with Japan until Pyongyang receives an apology as well as some financial compensation.
"The apology itself is very important to resolve the two countries' relations, because the two countries cannot be equal without the Japanese side's apology," says So Chung- on, head of the international affairs bureau of Chosen Soren, or the Association of Korean Residents in Japan. "Only when Japan expresses a sincere apology, can they have the mind to compensate for its past, he says, "and economic aid is quite different from compensation."