Slow thaw

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 12:00am

Precisely what North Korea wants from its smiling diplomatic campaign remains elusive, but some useful indications could emerge today in Tokyo. There Japanese and visiting Pyongyang officials will close talks aimed at establishing diplomatic relations - someday - between the two countries. If they get beyond sterile restatement of old positions, then there will be cause for a little optimism.

That hasn't happened yet. When they convened on Tuesday, the Koreans demanded apologies and reparations for Japan's brutal 1910-45 colonisation. Tokyo then demanded the return of 10 allegedly kidnapped Japanese civilians. It claims that North Korea, using a plot lifted straight from a Cold War thriller, sent commandos by submarine in the 1970s and 1980s to seize civilians from seashore locations to help train Pyongyang's spies.

Nothing will be resolved today. But if the Koreans, who deny kidnapping anyone, follow up hints that they do know something about 'missing persons', progress could be possible on that issue. And Japan could indicate it will make peace along lines of what it did for South Korea. Toss in some more free rice for hungry North Koreans, and the two sides could be en route to official diplomatic relations.

Those ties would have special importance. There's nothing sentimental about the attitudes of these two countries, and Japan is unlikely to do much unless it believes the smiles come with substance. One key issue is the north's missile programme, which Tokyo considers a direct security threat. If Pyongyang does something to defuse that threat, it would be the first tangible military gain from its charm offensive.

The North Koreans spent yesterday wooing friendly Koreans who reside in Japan and send them bags of cash, while refusing to take sightseeing tours organised by their official hosts. If the two sides also had secret runners carry messages of compromise back and forth, their closing session should indicate whether these talks will lead any further than the failed efforts of prior years.