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Abe Suggests Further North Korea Sanctions If No Progress

Japan PM Shinzo Abe - AFP image.
by P. Parameswaran
Washington (AFP) March 11, 2007
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Sunday that Japan might impose more sanctions on North Korea and brushed off concerns that its tactics could be isolating Tokyo from close ally Washington. In an interview on national Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), Abe said resolving a long-running row over kidnappings was integral to six-party talks aimed at reining in the communist state's nuclear weapons programme.

The dispute flared up again three days ago in Hanoi at the first bilateral talks between the two sides in more than a year, bringing them crashing to an early end amid mutual accusations of blame.

Abe suggested further Japanese sanctions against the North if Pyongyang did not change its stance, which is that it has come clean over the abductions -- something Tokyo rejects.

"They must show sincere attitudes in order for us to lift the sanctions. If the situation worsens, we must consider further actions," Abe said.

"If they want to lift the sanctions, they must ... resolve the kidnappings issue with concrete actions," he said.

Japan's sanctions -- imposed in the wake of the North's first ever nuclear weapons test last October -- are a ban on all visits by North Korean ships and all imports, notably money-makers such as clams, crabs and high-end matsutake mushrooms.

The acrimony of the Japan-North Korean meeting contrasted sharply with the positive vibes that emerged from landmark talks in New York between the North and the United States on normalising relations.

Abe dismissed concerns that Japan might become isolated.

"It is North Korea that is isolated from the rest of the world," he said.

The various talks on normalising ties with the Pyongyang regime were inked into a February 13 deal under which the North agreed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in return for vital energy aid and diplomatic concessions.

Abe, who has built his career talking tough on North Korea, reiterated that Japan will not help fund energy aid -- up to one million tonnes if all goes to plan -- unless the kidnappings issue is resolved.

"They are put in a very serious predicament. The economy is struggling. The energy situation is very difficult. The people are starving," he said.

"This situation has to be changed. To do that, they have to resolve the kidnapping problem.

"Of course, unless they resolve the missile and nuclear issues, they will not be accepted by the international community, and they will not be able to draw up plans for the future."

The kidnapping issue has become intensely emotional in Japan particularly since 2002, when Kim Jong-Il's regime admitted to abducting 13 people in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies in Japanese language and culture.

North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies. It returned five victims and their families, and insists the rest are dead.

earlier related report
Japan Impasse Casts Shadow On US Bid To End Korean Nuclear Crisis
The abrupt end to normalization talks between Japan and nuclear-armed North Korea is casting a shadow on US-led efforts to halt the Stalinist state's nuclear weapons drive. While experts ruled out any immediate impact on an aid-for-disarmament accord signed with North Korea last month, they warned that the emotional dispute over North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens could dampen Washington-Pyongyang normalization efforts.

Both Japan and the United States are holding normalization talks with North Korea under separate working groups established under a February 13 accord in six-nation talks that also included South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

The first direct bilateral contact in more than a year between Japan and North Korea in Hanoi this week was dominated by the emotive row over North Korea's past abduction of Japanese citizens on one side and anger at Tokyo's attitude to its wartime past on the other.

It abruptly ended Thursday with the two sides failing even to set a date for a new meeting, triggering fears that US-North Korea normalization talks that took off on an optimistic note in New York this week could be affected.

But Washington does not think so.

"We note that in the February 13 agreement, the six parties agreed that in principle, progress in one working group shall not affect progress in other working groups," a State Department official told AFP.

"It also says that plans made by the five working groups would be implemented as a whole in a coordinated manner," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Washington has urged the North Koreans to "address Japanese concerns and we will continue to do so," he said.

Japan, a key ally of the United States, sees itself as a top target of North Korea, which fired a missile over the country's main island in 1998, and has championed a hard line against Pyongyang.

While the impasse over the Japan-North Korea talks would not have any immediate effect on the overall bid to end Pyongyang's nuclear program, it is something which Washington will be watching closely, said Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.

"This is because the resolution for Japan on the abduction issue has been a concern for the Bush administration since 2003 when the administration added the abduction issue to the rationale for keeping North Korea on the state sponsor of terrorism list," Pritchard told AFP.

Japan also has refused to help fund the February 13 deal until the abduction issue is resolved.

Under the accord, North Korea agreed to close and seal its key Yongbyon nuclear facility -- long suspected to be the center of its nuclear program -- within 60 days and admit UN nuclear inspectors in return for 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.

It also requires the United States, which is still technically at war with North Korea after their 1950-1953 conflict, to consider removing Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as they move towards full diplomatic ties.

In its bid to end the nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula, Washington has come to realize that it cannot resolve all related issues simultaneously, said Daniel Pinkston of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.

"I think there is realization that it is not going to get everything resolved at once and that going by a checklist of the hierarchy of issues, the nuclear issue is most important," he said. The abduction issue was a subject of a lengthy discussion between US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan during normalization talks in New York this week.

"The big question is whether the US is going to be hostage to Japan and link any action on the removal of North Korea from the terrorism list to a resolution of the abductees' issue," said Selig Harrison of the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

earlier related report
Japan accuses NKorea of isolation tactics
Hanoi (AFP) March 9 - Japan said Friday it would not give in to North Korea's attempts to isolate it from its partners in efforts to end Pyongyang's nuclear programme after talks here broke down.

The rare bilateral meeting, set up under a six-nation accord on halting North Korea's nuclear drive, abruptly ended Thursday with the two sides failing even to set a date for a new meeting.

The second and last day of talks in Hanoi lasted a mere 45 minutes. North Korea shunned the entire afternoon session the day before.

Japan, which has refused to fund the nuclear deal, will continue to press North Korea on an emotionally charged row over its past kidnappings of Japanese nationals, Foreign Minister Taro Aso said.

"It is only natural that they would try to isolate Japan," Aso told reporters in Tokyo.

"But the most important point of the six-way talks is that we coordinate with other countries and find answers through dialogue" on the abductions, Aso said.

North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies. It returned five victims and their families, and says the rest are dead.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who says the other abductees are alive and more Japanese nationals had been snatched by the communist state, built his career campaigning for tough action against Pyongyang over the kidnappings.

Abe's government, whose popularity is sagging due to a series of domestic scandals, announced Friday it would run television advertisements across Japan demanding the return of the abduction victims.

Abe insisted North Korea "understands at the bottom of its heart that it is necessary to normalise diplomatic relations with Japan in order to change its economic situation made tough by energy and food shortages."

"We must use this as leverage to solve the abduction issue," Abe said in parliament.

But Masao Okonogi, a North Korea expert at Tokyo's Keio University, said Japan's stance resembled the views of hardliners recently sidelined in Washington.

"Japan's diplomacy is failing to catch up," Okonogi said. "Japan still clings onto the old hardline North Korea policy of the United States."

The United States and North Korea, still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict, held their own bilateral meeting on normalising relations this week in New York.

Chief US negotiator Christopher Hill described the talks as "very good" and said the two sides would meet again prior to the next full session of six-party negotiations in Beijing on March 19.

"North Korea is trying to make relations with Japan stand out as lagging behind" from other partners of the nuclear agreement, Okonogi said.

"It was enough for them just to show that they came to the meeting," he said. "They were going to make the talks break down, anyway."

Japanese newspapers across the political spectrum supported Abe's firm stance.

"Some in the Japanese political fold are disturbed by the prospect of Japan being isolated or left behind the five other nations in the six-party talks," the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun daily said in an editorial.

"But giving too much weight to such opinions would play right into North Korea's hands."

earlier related report
NKorea envoy makes rare Tokyo stop
Tokyo (AFP) March 8 - North Korea's chief nuclear envoy, who held landmark talks with his US counterpart this week, stopped over in Tokyo on Thursday even as his country's parallel negotiations with Japan went nowhere.

Kim Kye-Gwan, returning from the talks in New York, changed planes at Tokyo's Narita airport and left for Beijing. He did not meet any Japanese officials during the rare, brief stop.

Asked by reporters if North Korea's better ties with the United States could help improve relations with Japan, Kim said: "We must become so close -- and so close -- as countries in Asia. That is our position."

He was playing on the expression "so close and yet so far", and diplomats from Japan and North Korea have used Kim's expression many times since they first launched talks in 1991 on establishing diplomatic relations.

The normalisation talks have been hampered by a dispute over North Korea's kidnappings of Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies in Japanese language and culture.

The abduction issue again held up progress in bilateral talks in Hanoi that closed Thursday.

The contact was part of a February 13 six-nation deal that has committed Pyongyang to shut down a nuclear reactor in exchange for aid and improved relations.

In contrast, Kim's talks with US assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill in New York on Monday and Tuesday proceeded with a major hitch.

Japan has championed a hard line on Pyongyang, imposing sanctions that include a ban on visits by North Korean officials.

Kim Kye-Gwan was last in Japan in April 2006 for a regional conference, before relations soured over North Korea's tests of missiles and an atom bomb.

earlier related report
China urges parties to shelve mistrust in NKorea nuke talks
Beijing (AFP) March 9 - China on Friday urged the countries involved in North Korean nuclear disarmament talks to set aside historical mistrust in order to cement hard-won recent successes, state-run media reported.

"Due to various factors including historical ones, a serious lack of trust between relevant countries has been the biggest problem for the six-party talks, making it difficult to take every step forward," China's representative in the talks, Wu Dawei, was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

"Once there is mutual trust, any big problems can be easily solved," he said. Wu spoke after a meeting in Beijing with North Korea's talks envoy Kim Kye-gwan, who arrived to brief Wu on his recent discussions in New York with chief US negotiator Christopher Hill.

"China hopes more progress will be made, and that all relevant sides will make constructive efforts in this regard," Wu said as he communicated with Internet users on the website.

The six-nation talks are expected to convene again on March 19, following North Korea's agreement last month to shut down its main nuclear facility and dismantle its atomic weapons programme in exchange for aid and moves toward full diplomatic ties with Washington.

The deal was reached in talks among China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States four months after Pyongyang carried out its first nuclear test.

There has been a flurry of follow-up diplomacy in recent weeks to ensure that the reclusive Stalinist regime sticks to the hard-won agreement.

However, talks on normalising relations between North Korea and Japan in Vietnam ended in acrimony early Thursday, without a date set for a next round.

earlier related report
North Korea warns US to keep promise on lifting sanctions
Beijing (AFP) March 10 - North Korea will retaliate if the United States fails to keep its promise to lift financial sanctions imposed on the communist regime, Pyongyang's chief nuclear negotiator said here Saturday.

The warning from Kim Kye-Kwan came after he held landmark negotiations in the United States with his US counterpart Christopher Hill earlier this week.

Washington agreed to begin talks that would lead to the lifting of sanctions that resulted in a freeze on 24 million dollars in North Korean funds at the Macau bank Banco Delta Asia as part of a February agreement on ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons drive.

"The US has promised the North it would scrap financial sanctions on the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) and the North is keeping a close eye on the promise," Kim Kye-Gwan was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency at Beijing international airport before boarding a flight to Pyongyang.

He said if the US failed to solve the issue completely, the North would have to take action against it.

Washington had said BDA was laundering North Korean-made counterfeit US 100 dollar bills.

The accord at six-party talks among China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States came four months after Pyongyang carried out its first nuclear test.

Under the deal North Korea promised to shut down its main nuclear facility and dismantle its atomic weapons programme in exchange for aid and moves toward full diplomatic ties with Washington.

Kim and Hill discussed normalisation of relations on Monday and Tuesday in New York and will meet again here at six-nation talks expected to convene on March 19.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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