Japan extends formal hand to North Korea

In the latest sign of a mounting international effort to open links to North Korea, Japan announced yesterday that it will hold talks aimed at establishing full diplomatic relations with the embattled Stalinist government.

The announcement was given added symbolism by its timing, on the 52nd anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of the Second World War, which also marked the Koreas' liberation from 35 years as a Japanese colony. The meeting, to be held at the Japanese embassy in Peking next Thursday, will aim to establish an agenda for formal talks on normalisation, which have been suspended since 1992.

"The talks between the two governments will be elevated to deputy director level so as to move the process more efficiently," the Japanese foreign minister, Yukihiko Ikeda, said yesterday.

The diplomatic challenge of dealing with North Korea is especially complicated for Japan. No country, apart from South Korea, has more to lose in a potential conflict on the peninsula, which is less than a hundred miles from Japan at the closest point. Over the years, politicians from Tokyo have made frequent unofficial visits to Pyongyang, whose economy has been immeasurably helped by contributions from ethnic Koreans living in Japan.

But, publicly at least, Koreans North and South are unable to forgive Japan for its brutal annexation of their country in 1910. Recently, a bizarre complication has arisen in the form of 20 or so missing persons cases, reported in remote coastal regions on Japan in the late 1970s.

Evidence from North Korean defectors suggests that the missing people may have been abducted by North Korean spies and transported by boat to Pyongyang, where some are still living.

The North Koreans walked out of the last set of talks in 1992, after Japanese diplomats raised the issue. But recently, the North Koreans have hinted that they are willing to consider another Japanese request - for home visits by some 1800 Japanese women who moved to the North after marrying Korean men.

Last year, Tokyo sent $5.2m-worth of food aid to the North to alleviate the creeping famine there, but suspended further aid after the abduction allegations. Last week, however, after months of procrastination, North Korean officials joined American, Chinese and South Korean counterparts for preparatory peace talks in New York. Since then, and in the face of a worsening of the food situation, international attitudes to further aid appear to have softened.

Comments