Even on an Easy Day, Negotiating the Hard Line

By Nora Boustany
Friday, July 21, 2006

During a round of talks with North Korea over the abduction of Japanese citizens, Akitaka Saiki , a Japanese negotiator, pounded the table in frustration. The North Koreans reciprocated with the same gesture. When he threatened to leave, they told him to go right ahead.

"You feel you are making a lot of progress, then not at all. Then inch by inch. They are not allowed to be flexible," Saiki, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy, said in an interview Wednesday.

After Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a historic visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in 2002, Saiki became involved in the negotiations to secure the release of 16 Japanese kidnapped by North Korea . From 2002 to 2005, Saiki pondered, planned and agonized over the best approach to negotiating with his North Korean counterparts.

When the North Koreans spoke, Saiki said, they always issued the same official line. But "I never let myself feel defeated -- like, 'This is the worst day of my life.' I never gave up on the negotiations," he said.

Ultimately, "you have to choose the moments. You cannot pound the table all the time or keep threatening to walk out. Superiors' instructions are to stay focused on the negotiations, not to get emotional or too excited," he said, adding that "the happiest time was when I got the first five out."

That happened Oct. 15, 2002. Less than two years later, he returned to Pyongyang to pick up Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins , a U.S. Army deserter who defected in 1965. Jenkins's wife, Hitomi Soga , is a Japanese citizen who was abducted by North Korean spies in 1978. She was repatriated in 2002.

North Korea also kidnapped Thais, South Koreans, Lebanese and Europeans, and the fate of several other Japanese citizens remains unknown. "We don't know what to make of these other abductions. Japanese are usually kidnapped to go teach Japanese language and culture to North Koreans," he said.

"We are dealing with a very strange regime that has dynasty characteristics like passing on power from father to son, molded into a communist system which they have transformed into their own ideology, a kind of assertion of independence," he said.

During the talks, North Korean officials never went beyond their prepared statements, Saiki said, regardless of how hard the Japanese team pressed for clarification. "They always denied everything we said," he said. When the Japanese team asked about the remaining hostages after the initial five were freed, the North Koreans countered that they were all dead. Then they produced death certificates, which proved to be fabricated.

Saiki, 53, has been in the United States for five months assisting his ambassador and his staff and organizing official visits. In April, he organized a visit to the United States for the parents of Japanese citizens still missing in North Korea. They talked to members of Congress and met with President Bush in the Oval Office. "We want Americans to understand the seriousness of this issue. We have to do something about the regime, not just to free our hostages. Most [North] Koreans, 20 million, are in complete confinement. It is like one big concentration camp," Saiki said.

Saiki, whose father served as Japan's ambassador to Kenya, Hungary and Argentina, was sent to boarding school at age 13. "I can't tell you what it feels like inside for a son not to talk to his father so often, and by telephone. I had such great respect for my father," he recalled.

Saiki studied international relations and law at university. "I never felt I was the right fit for the private sector; I wanted to devote my life to public service," he said. "The real inspiration to join the foreign service came in 1972, when I was a junior in college . . . when a diplomatic breakthrough allowed for the normalization of ties between Tokyo and Beijing."

"It was the unfinished business of World War II. Sooner or later, like it or not, we had to deal with it. It was like this refreshing wake-up call for men and women of my generation. I, too, felt personally encouraged and charged," he said in an interview Wednesday.

"While some homework was done with the restoration of ties with China, we needed to continue diplomatic work on other fronts," including the Korean Peninsula and Russia, he said.

Russia has occupied four small islands off Hokkaido, in northern Japan, since the Soviets seized the Japanese islands in 1945 for their rich fishing resources. The dispute over the islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, "is like a fishbone stuck in our throats," he said.

From 1988 to 1993, Saiki served as a counselor at the Permanent Mission in Geneva when the Japanese took part in multilateral negotiations to set up the World Trade Organization.

His advice for diplomats who find themselves in similar situations with the North Koreans: "Insist on being convinced. Unless they can prove something, don't make any deals with them. For me, this was a painful and frustrating experience. You don't make much progress, you get used to it. For North Koreans, time is not a concern."

"Be patient and stay strong. I would tell myself each time, 'What if my own son had been kidnapped? I have to bring him back.' Not to personalize too much, but this could happen to anybody," he said.

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