Japan and North Korea are to hold their first governmental-level talks for the first time in four years on Aug. 29, the Tokyo government announced.
Chief government spokesman Osamu Fujimura stated that the goal of this meeting is to settle "the unfortunate past" and to restore normal relations.
These two nations have no formal diplomatic ties, and they have not had any governmental-level discussions since August 2008. Their frosty relations were caused largely by disputes over North Korea's nuclear program and its alleged abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s.
In the absence of normal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, Japan has lived under the threat of military attacks from its neighbor across the Sea of Japan.
This ongoing threat intensified when North Korea abandoned the sixpParty Talks with China, U.S., South Korea, Russia and Japan in 2008. When asked to suspend its nuclear and missile tests, North Korea responded by launching a long-range missile on April 2009.
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In addition, North Korea bombed South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, killing 4 and injuring 19 South Korean citizens. In response, Seoul's ally Japan issued a angry statement condemning North Korea, and called upon the UN Security Council to denounce the shelling as a violation of UN resolutions.
Nevertheless, efforts to restore normal relations with North Korea had begun in Japan as early as 2002, when Prime Minister Koizumi visited North Korea. During this visit, then-North Korea leader Kim Jong Il admitted and apologized for the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens, among whom he pronounced that only five were still alive. (The Japanese nationalsd were reportedly kidnapped in order to be trained as spies).
The five abductees were later returned to Japan safely later that year, but North Korea failed to explian the fate of the others.
The abduction issue inflamed Japan -- overwhelming support for the victims and the victims' families pressured the Japanese government into action.
In 2006, Japan instituted the Headquarters on the Abduction Issue, headed by the Prime Minister. This committee has continually expanded since its establishment. It implements economic sanctions against North Korea and raises awareness regarding the abduction issues in Japan.
Current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has publicly expressed his deep concern over the unsolved abductions. Spokesman Fujimura said that Japan will push to have the issue included in the agenda of the upcoming talks.
North Korea and Japan have a complicated history, involving 45 years of Japanese occupation from 1905-1945. At the end of that period, after Soviet troops entered what is now North Korea, 34,600 Japanese soldiers died. According to Al Jazeera, while the remains of about 13,000 Japanese have been repatriated, around 21,000 others remain buried in the North.
The Red Cross Society on both sides talked for the first time in a decade last week about the repatriation of the remains of these troops. Its success seems to have been a great push for the governmental-level talk scheduled later this month on August 29th.