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Japan softens stance on prospect of “chat” with N. Korea: sources

TOKYO — Japan has softened its stance on talks with North Korea, and now plans to take part in informal meetings that do not include substantive negotiations on the North’s nuclear program, Japanese government sources said Monday.


The shift puts Japan in step with the United States, which tried to organize high-level talks with North Korea earlier this month on the sidelines of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.


The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said that no meaningful dialogue can be held with the North until it takes concrete steps toward scrapping its nuclear program.


But the new position is that such a commitment would not be required to hold talks in which the parties merely exchange greetings or repeat their existing positions on issues, the sources said.


The shift does not mean Japan will let up on its campaign to raise economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. This, too, keeps Japan’s position consistent with that of the United States, which rolled out new unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang on Friday.


Reopening dialogue channels with North Korea could potentially lead to a resumption of stalled negotiations over Japanese nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s.


Japan will continue to refuse to take part in any dialogue that would acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power, the sources said.


“North Korea will play the nuclear card in its favor (if we enter into those negotiations). The United States won’t engage in that kind of discussion either,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.


The policy shift is the result of coordination between Tokyo and Washington. According to a diplomatic source, the two governments confirmed earlier this month that they will not engage in “dialogue” with North Korea, but could accept a “chat.”


At that time, the United States was attempting to set up a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, while both were visiting South Korea for the Pyeongchang games. Pence was reportedly planning to convey Washington’s intention to keep up pressure on North Korea.


The North Korean delegation pulled out “at the last minute,” according to the U.S. State Department, but had the meeting gone ahead, it would have left Japan and the United States out of step with each other on how to interact with the North.


“If the United States and North Korea go into negotiations (on their own), Japan will be left out of the loop and the abduction issue could be abandoned,” a source close to Japan-North Korea relations said.


In a hint at Japan’s new stance, Abe shook hands and briefly exchanged words with North Korea’s ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam at a reception dinner ahead of the Winter Olympics.


“Japan believes it is important to directly communicate our thoughts to North Korea,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, said Monday.


But according to the Foreign Ministry official, there are “no plans at the present time” for further interaction between Japan and North Korea.


The office of South Korean President Moon Jae In said Sunday that in talks earlier that day between Moon and the North Korean delegation, North Korea expressed readiness to hold talks with the United States.


In response, the White House said in a statement Sunday, “We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization.”


“In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end,” it said.

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