An aide to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met a senior North Korean party official in Pyongyang, raising the possibility of an easing in regional tensions after months of threats from the totalitarian state.
Isao Iijima yesterday met Kim Yong Il, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a statement that didn’t give further details. He toured two parks and dolphin aquarium today, KCNA said in a separate statement today.
Iijima arrived May 14 in an unannounced trip that Abe has declined to discuss. The aide also was a secretary to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who visited Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004 in a bid to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago.
Japan broke off talks with Kim Jong Un’s regime on the abduction issue in December after North Korea announced plans to fire a long-range rocket in defiance of international sanctions. North Korea then detonated an atomic bomb and warned of preemptive nuclear strikes against the U.S. and South Korea, threats that have moderated since the start of May.
China hopes the contact can ease tensions on the Korean peninsula, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said today. South Korea today criticized Japan for taking unilateral action on North Korea and not notifying President Park Geun Hye’s government ahead of Iijima’s trip.
The visit is “not helpful” for international efforts to remain closely coordinated on the North Korean issue, Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai Young told reporters today in Seoul. Japan yesterday explained the reason behind the trip, he added, without elaborating.
Abe declined to comment in parliament yesterday on Iijima’s visit. Asked whether there were plans to hold a summit with Kim, he told lawmakers he would consider doing so only if a meeting would help resolve the abductee problem, as well as the nuclear and missile tensions.
“Meeting is not the point,” he said. “There must be results.”
The North admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, a key issue in the normalization of ties between the two countries, and allowed five of them to return home, saying the others were dead. Japan says at least 17 people were kidnapped and that there must be a full accounting for all those who have not been returned.
North Korea has been ready to conduct a fourth nuclear weapons test since its last atomic detonation in February, the South Korean Defense Ministry said last month. Two ballistic missiles have been withdrawn from a launch site in the east of the country, CNN reported May 6. U.S. and South Korean forces declined to confirm or deny the possible missile withdrawal.
Abe, who visited Pyongyang with Koizumi a decade ago, has been closely associated with the campaign for the return of abductees. In a February policy speech to parliament, he said his mission would not be complete until all families of abductees were reunited with their missing relatives.
Glyn Davies, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean issues, said on May 14 in Seoul that while he was unaware of Iijima’s trip “it will obviously be something that I discuss with the Japanese.” He arrived in Tokyo today after meetings in Beijing.