Japan and N. Korea Clash as 6-Party Nuclear Talks Resume

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

BEIJING, March 19 -- Delegates to the latest round of six-party talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program completed their first day of official discussions in Beijing on Monday, with an important money dispute apparently settled but another disagreement involving Japan and North Korea raising its head.

China's top negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, warned at the talks' opening ceremony that difficulties and obstacles remained.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the senior U.S. negotiator, said delegates should proceed to a discussion of how to obtain a full declaration of North Korea's nuclear capabilities and how to disable the nuclear program, in addition to the shutdown of the reactor at Yongbyon by mid-April.

But a Japanese official in Beijing complained of a deadlock over questions about North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens. "At this juncture, we are not ready to extend energy or economic assistance to North Korea, when the abduction issue or the normalization" of relations between Japan and North Korea "do not show progress," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

South Korea has committed to early delivery of heavy fuel oil to North Korea in exchange for the closure of Yongbyon. A larger energy and economic aid package is currently being shouldered by South Korea, the United States, China and Russia.

But Japan has agreed to provide aid only after North Korea repatriates or credibly explains the fate of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s. In 2002, North Korea admitted to 13 kidnappings and allowed five of the abductees to return home, saying the others had died. The Japanese contend that a total of 17 people were seized and that some may still be alive in North Korea, but that North Korea has ceased to cooperate on the issue.

The issue has become highly politicized in Japan, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has staked his reputation on resolving it.

Earlier this month, during a working group discussion in Hanoi intended to help normalize relations between Japan and North Korea and smooth the way for the six-party talks, the North Korean delegates walked out.

"I personally made a strong pitch to the DPRK to pick up the pace with the Japan working group," Hill said Monday evening, using the initials of the North's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "We want to see more progress on the Japan issues, and I think we all know what those issues are," he added later.

At the opening of Monday's talks, North Korea's chief negotiator questioned the right of Japan's envoy to be present.

U.S. officials announced earlier Monday an agreement to release $25 million in frozen North Korean funds held in Banco Delta Asia, a bank in Macau. It was a significant reversal of the Treasury's previous position that much of the money had been illicitly laundered by the bank for North Korea and would remain frozen. North Korean officials seemed satisfied and issued no "ultimatums" about how and when the money would be transferred, Hill said.

The Banco Delta Asia issue ended the last round of six-party talks when North Korea's top envoy insisted it be resolved before any nuclear issues could be discussed.

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