Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Washington has rejected a demand by North Korea that Japan be excluded from any future multi-party talks aimed at resolving the nuclear crisis that erupted one year ago this week.
Japan "must and will" continue to participate in the talks because of its vital interests in seeing a resolution to the nuclear standoff and other outstanding issues, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing Tuesday.
"North Korean actions, particularly with regard to missiles and their pursuit of nuclear weapons, have raised the concern of its neighbors, including Japan, and North Korea must deal with those concerns," Boucher said.
Earlier in the day, Tokyo also rejected the North Korean demand, saying it did not accept that any participant in the talks could decide on whether another takes part or not.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told reporters Pyongyang was being "selfish."
A first round of talks in Beijing last August brought together the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Another round may be held in November, although there has been no agreement or confirmation as yet.
North Korea's surprise announcement, released via the official KCNA news agency, said Japan was no longer a "trustworthy dialogue partner" because it was raising bilateral problems at the talks, such as the past abduction by North Korea of Japanese citizens.
"Japan is nothing but an obstacle to the peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue between the DPRK and the U.S.," it said. DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the communist state's official name.
The statement accused Japan's leaders of trying to use the talks to bolster their country's economy and their own political positions.
North Korea's demands may be an attempt to strengthen its position ahead of future talks.
The multi-party formula has provided something of a balance between the interests of the two main players: China and Russia are North Korea's closest allies, while Japan and South Korea are U.S. partners.
Japan is the participant whose views have most closely mirrored those of the U.S.
Unlike a wary South Korea - and China and Russia - Japan has not ruled out sanctions against Pyongyang.
Tokyo has also backed the U.S. Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and participated in the first PSI joint exercises, training to stop and search ships at sea suspected to be carrying weapons of mass destruction. North Korea is considered the most obvious short-term target of the program.
Moreover, Japanese leaders have warned they could launch pre-emptive strikes if North Korea prepares to fire a missile in Japan's direction.
There are many potential reasons why Pyongyang would want to exclude Japan from the talks, but it has focused on the bilateral dispute over the abduction of Japanese citizens and the treatment of a pro-North Korea group in Japan.
North Korea admitted last year that it had abducted 13 Japanese citizens during the 1970s. Eight had died, it said. The surviving five returned to Japan, but their North Korean-born children have not been allowed to join them.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said last August the abduction issue was just as important to Japan as the nuclear question.
The other issue raised by North Korea this week was Japan's clampdown on a Japan-based, pro-Pyongyang organization called the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon).
The authorities recently rescinded the group's tax-exempt status, a step that compels it to pay substantial levies on its premises.
Pyongyang's statement accused Japan of pursuing a hostile policy toward ethnic Koreans and demanded an apology for the "all the damage" caused to Chongryon.
'Blank sheet of paper'
The nuclear standoff erupted a year ago, during a visit to Pyongyang by senior U.S. diplomat James Kelly.
Several weeks after the visit, the State Department announced that the North Koreans had admitted, when challenged by Kelly, to the existence of a covert uranium-enrichment program, a violation of a 1994 agreement between Pyongyang and Washington.
The crisis deepened over the winter as North Korea removed U.N. surveillance cameras, kicked out U.N. inspectors monitoring nuclear facilities frozen under the 1994 deal and restarted the reactor.
It later withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, publicly acknowledged the existence of a "nuclear deterrent" and, in recent days, upped the stakes further by claiming to have completed reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, a process that experts say would provide the material for another half a dozen atomic bombs.
North Korea is holding out for a "non-aggression pact" from the U.S. in exchange for dismantling its nuclear programs.
Washington has repeatedly denied having hostile intentions but has offered security assurances short of a treaty.
North Korea this week again rejected this, saying it would be "nothing but a blank sheet of paper which can never give any legal guarantee that the Bush administration will not attack."
State Department spokesman Boucher on Tuesday reiterated Washington's position, saying a treaty was "not in the cards."
"But we've also talked about our willingness to listen to them, try to deal with their concerns about security if they are going to dismantle their nuclear program," Boucher added.
Boucher said no dates had yet been set for further six-party talks.
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