PYONGYANG AND TOKYO agree on nothing, read the headline in Thursday's South China Morning Post. The article reported on two days of negotiations in Kuala Lumpur between North Korea and Japan that were meant to lead to the normalisation of relations between the countries. The outcome was not surprising. The spectacular meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on September 17 was quickly overtaken by other events. One was the horrified reaction in Japan to Pyongyang's admission that it abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, eight of whom have died, and news that North Korea has a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. Pyongyang's admission was the result of a calculated decision and, no doubt, Mr Kim thought he could contain the fallout. The five surviving Japanese kidnap victims were allowed to return to Japan, but only for a visit. Their children and, in one case, a spouse, were kept in North Korea. Evidently, Mr Kim felt that, as long as their relatives remained in North Korea, the Japanese returnees would not say anything damaging. In this, the North Koreans were correct. The Japanese returnees were noticeably reticent about their kidnapping and about the eight other victims who died prematurely. The reaction in Japan was predictable. A rising tide of public anger at North Korea caused Tokyo to decide not to send the five kidnap victims back. Of course, the decision whether to return to North Korea or remain in Japan should be left to the five individuals and their families. Diplomatic relations But clearly, these five are not free agents and, if they were to assume the responsibility for the decision not to return to North Korea, the lives of their relatives in Pyongyang may be in jeopardy, given the nature of the regime there. If the issue was simply about the abductions, conceivably the matter could have been handled. After all, the North Koreans did agree during the two-day talks in Kuala Lumpur to provide additional information, although clearly they wanted to move on and discuss normalisation of diplomatic relations and economic aid from Japan. However, two weeks after Mr Koizumi's visit, Washington disclosed North Korea's admission that it had embarked on a secret programme to acquire nuclear weapons. This was shocking news for Japan. The Pyongyang Declaration signed by the leaders of Japan and North Korea on September 17 declared that both countries would comply with all international agreements to achieve a comprehensive solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula. The covert nuclear programme was a clear violation of international agreements, including not just the 1994 agreed framework with the United States, but other international accords as well. From Japan's viewpoint, therefore, the Pyongyang Declaration had been violated. After all, North Korea knew when it signed that it was already in violation of international agreements. Japan had been deceived. Covert nuclear programme The US has disclosed that it first received information of Pyongyang's covert nuclear programme in the summer. It is unclear if this information was communicated to Japan before Mr Koizumi's trip to North Korea. If the Japanese knew, then they signed the Pyongyang Declaration with their eyes open. But Japan's reaction suggests that Mr Koizumi had not been fully briefed. It was natural, therefore, that the Japanese should put the kidnappings and the nuclear issue at the top of their agenda when meeting the North Koreans. Pyongyang, however, had other priorities. It insisted that the talks were for the purpose of normalising ties as well as to discuss compensation for Japan's colonisation of the Korean peninsula. Given the gulf between the two sides, it was not surprising little was achieved. North Korea has reverted to form, insisting that the nuclear issue should only be discussed with the US, and not Japan. Washington, however, is not in a talking mood. It says, quite logically, that there is no point discussing another agreement with Pyongyang until it is willing to honour the original agreement. The US has indicated it has no intention of going to war with North Korea. That should be reassuring for Pyongyang. But now the ball is in Mr Kim's court, since the problem is of his own making. Mr Kim's willingness to admit that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese nationals suggests he is someone who can make difficult decisions. He certainly needs to make some now.