Abe Sends Key Aide to Pyongyang

      May 15, 2013 12:28

      A key aide to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday afternoon, Kyodo News reported. Cabinet Secretariat Adviser Isao Iijima (67) was welcomed by North Korean Foreign Ministry official Kim Chol-ho at Pyongyang Airport.

      Japanese media reported Iijima's arrival in Pyongyang as breaking news.

      The surprise is that Abe is openly sending a key aide to Pyongyang although his government increasingly lists to the far right, swimming slightly against international attempts to isolate the North.

      But NHK said the visit is an attempt to find a solution to the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea during a bizarre campaign in the 1970s and 80s -- a matter that still carries a huge emotional charge in Japan.

      Japan's Cabinet Secretariat Adviser Isao Iijima (right) shakes hands with North Korean Foreign Ministry official Kim Chol-ho at Pyongyang Airport on Tuesday. /Reuters-News 1

      Iijima in a recent interview said Abe himself could make a surprise visit to the North to discuss the abduction issue. He accompanied former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whom he assisted for 34 years, to summits in Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004.

      Pundits speculate that Abe sent Ijima to Pyongyang to gain an advantage in the upcoming elections to the House of Councilors in July, given that there has been little progress in the abduction issue over the decades. If his party wins on a wave of public support, he may try to revise the country's pacifist postwar constitution.

      "Abe likely just wants Iijima to set a schedule for discussion of the abduction issue," Prof. Kan Kimura of Kobe University said.

      During Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang, Abe, who was then chief Cabinet secretary, won the release of some abduction victims. He became prime minister himself later on the strength of that success.

      North Korea in turn is likely to be grateful for any international engagement amid tightening global sanctions. In a rare move, the North Korean state media immediately announce Iijima's visit.

      As a secretary to the prime minister during the Koizumi administration, Iijima was deeply involved in the Pyongyang-Tokyo summits in 2002 and 2004 and is believed to be maintaining informal communication channels with Pyongyang through a pro-North Korean organization in Japan.

      When the Democratic Party was in power, Tokyo resumed talks about the abduction victims with Pyongyang in August last year, four years after the previous talks stalled. But negotiations in Ulan Bator, Mongolia in November were again suspended when the North launched a space rocket.

      It is likely that Tokyo notified Washington of the visit in advance. At a seminar in Washington on May 2, Keiji Furuya, the minister in charge of the abduction victim issue, said his country would seek its own way to "pull out a thorn" from its relations with North Korea. He said Japan should act on its own, and the U.S. "fully understands" that position.

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