Japan tiptoes cautiously toward better relations with North Korea

Having cemented its shaky relations with South Korea, Japan is moving cautiously toward closer contacts with the northern half of the Korean peninsula.

Recent moves include negotiations to allow Japanese fishermen access to North Korean waters, for North Korean officials to visit Japan, and proposals for establishment of trade liaison offices and an exchange of journalists.

Ostensibly these are largely private initiatives, in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. But the Tokyo government is maintaining a close watch, and , say diplomatic sources, even giving tacit approval.

In early July, Chuji Kuno, president of the Dietmen's (parliamentarians') League for Japan-(North) Korea Friendship and a senior, respected member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, visited North Korea.

His main purpose was to renew a bilateral private fishery agreement which expired last year. Although unsuccessful, Mr. Kuno expects to return to Pyongyang next month.

But what attracted most attention on his recent trip was his proposals for establishment of trade liaison offices in the respective capitals and exchange of correspondents, which reportedly drew a ''flexible response'' from the Korean side.

A high-ranking Japanese Foreign Ministry official later admitted that the Kuno proposals had been ''unofficially discussed'' before his departure for Pyongyang.

Plans were long ago prepared for eventual establishment in the Korean capital of an office of the Japan External Trade Organization, a semigovernmental trade promotion body, ministry sources said.

In the absence of formal ties, Japan has been relying on low-level cultural and economic exchanges to maintain a pipeline of communication into North Korea.

Diplomatic analysts say the government wants to step up that effort since Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has consolidated relations with the South. This was accomplished partly by his visit to Seoul last January when he ended several years of often acrimonious bargaining over Japanese economic aid.

The moves toward Pyongyang are offically presented as Japan's contribution toward easing tensions between North and South Korea and helping bring about eventual reunification of the divided country which it once ruled. This is part of a longstanding move for ''cross recognition'' whereby the United States and Japan, for example, would recognize North Korea, if China and the Soviet Union, Pyongyang's chief supporters, reciprocated with recognition of the South.

This was believed to be an important factor in the Japanese decision to grant entry visas for North Korean government officials to attend an international conference in Tokyo for the first time.

At a recent reception for conference participants, Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe had a brief conversation with the delegates, which was widely described as ''the first conversation between a Japanese cabinet minister and Korean government representatives.''

The Justice Ministry now appears ready to give an entry visa to Hyon Jun-Guk, Chuji Kuno's Korean counterpart in both the friendship association and fishery talks, to continue the negotiations.

Hyon was unable to obtain a visa last year because of Tokyo's displeasure at his ''political activities'' on an earlier visit - a key reason why the fishery agreement expired. The government's position is that it will wait to see the outcome of the fishery negotiations before deciding what the next step should be.

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