Japan, N. Korea fail in attempt at normalizing diplomatic ties

Negotiations end without progress on abductees, nuclear program, aid


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Japan and North Korea ended two days of negotiations here yesterday, angrily talking past each other on issues that each side depicts as the major obstacles to normalized relations.

Japan's insistence on visits by immediate relatives of people kidnapped by North Korea beginning in the late 1970s drew a strong rebuke from North Korean delegates. In much the same spirit, meanwhile, Tokyo said there was no question of long-promised economic aid to its impoverished neighbor until the abduction issue and concerns about North Korea's nuclear weapons program are resolved.

Despite the deep divide, the two sides were able to claim modest progress, however, by agreeing to establish a panel to discuss security issues beginning next month. But it was unclear whether North Korea would agree to discuss nuclear weapons in such a forum.

In response to the urgings of the United States, Washington's two main East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, have recently demanded that North Korea abandon efforts to produce highly enriched uranium.

The North's nuclear program, which violates a 1994 weapons control agreement, had been conducted in secret, until the country was confronted with U.S. intelligence last month and forced to acknowledge its activities.

Since then the Bush administration has strongly urged Japan not to grant economic aid to North Korea until it consents to the verifiable dismantlement of its uranium program.

The sudden emergence of the nuclear issue, aired by Washington after the first high-level visit by an official from the Bush administration to Pyongyang earlier this month, has drastically upended regional expectations of a quick honeymoon between Japan and North Korea.

The two countries are bitterly estranged neighbors that have never had diplomatic relations, and their rapprochement offered each side something it wanted badly.

For Japan, the expected reward was a dramatic political reward for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and a rare taste of diplomatic autonomy from its U.S. ally.

For North Korea, the stakes were an expected windfall of $10 billion in assistance, offered in settlement of the North's grievances over colonial atrocities committed by Japan between 1910 and 1945.

Washington's insistence that its allies withhold economic cooperation from North Korea until security concerns are resolved has removed Japan's principal form of leverage in the talks here, causing North Korea to take a harder line on the abductee issue, while urging the United States to negotiate with it directly.

"If the Americans will help our country and promise not to attack us we can solve the nuclear problem," Pak Ryong Yon, the chief North Korean delegate, said at the conclusion of the talks.

After refusing to discuss the nuclear issue here at all Tuesday, the North Korean delegation yesterday urged Japan to come up with a "package solution" to normalization, implying large amounts of financial assistance. "It is clear that Japan should compensate our country for the mental and physical damage it caused us" during its period of colonial rule, said Jong Thae Hwa, North Korea's envoy to the talks.

A statement from North Korea's official news agency, meanwhile, took an implicitly menacing line. "We cannot but doubt whether Japan truly wishes for cooperation, or rests content with bringing just five survivors to Japan," it said.

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