FOCUS: N. Korea transition tests Noda's diplomatic skills
By Ko Hirano
BEIJING, Dec. 26, Kyodo
Leaders of Japan and China have agreed to closely watch North Korea's leadership transition after the death of leader Kim Jong Il, but Beijing, apparently due to its own interests, was cautious about extending support to Tokyo over Pyongyang's abductions of Japanese nationals.
Stressing the abduction issue is ''one of the most important issues for Japan,'' Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda asked Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday to help address the issue that keeps Japan and North Korea from normalizing diplomatic relations.
In a separate meeting in Beijing with Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday, Noda said Kim Jong Il's death Dec. 17 ''could be a chance to break the deadlock'' in the abduction issue, indicating Japan may consider building a relationship with what is believed to be a collective leadership under Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il's youngest son and heir apparent.
The Chinese leaders stopped short, however, of giving explicit support to Noda as China apparently does not wish to provoke North Korea during a delicate leadership transition.
Winning cooperation from China and Russia and maintaining close tie-ups with the United States and South Korea is the key to advancing Japan's diplomacy toward North Korea because Tokyo alone has limited leverage.
China's support is particularly important because, as seen by Kim Jong Il's repeated visits to China, Beijing wields considerable influence in Pyongyang as its largest benefactor.
Analysts say it is in China's strategic interest to see a smooth and peaceful transition to Kim Jong Un from the late leader because ensuring stability in North Korea -- which China sees as a ''buffer zone'' with South Korea, an ally of the United States -- is vital for Beijing, especially ahead of its own leadership change in autumn 2012.
China appears to worry that instability in North Korea could send a wave of desperate refugees into China and threaten the entire region by leaving North Korea's nuclear facilities vulnerable.
Kim Jong Un's view on Japan is unknown, except that his mother is believed to have been a Korean born in Osaka, Japan, who spent her childhood there.
It is also uncertain how much the young Kim can worry about foreign policy, including relations with Japan, because his top priority is likely to be consolidating the leadership.
In an apparent effort to establish Kim Jong Un's authority, North Korea's official media have stepped up a campaign to idolize the 28-year-old, calling him ''respected comrade,'' ''supreme leader of the revolutionary armed forces'' and ''outstanding leader of our party, army and people.''
In Sunday's meeting in Beijing, Noda asked Wen to tell the new leadership in Pyongyang that Japan and North Korea ''must make progress'' in addressing the abductions if bilateral ties are to be improved, according to a senior Japanese official.
Japan and North Korea have not held intergovernmental talks since August 2008, and the six-party talks on ending Pyongyang's nuclear programs were last held in December 2008, leaving the two governments out of touch for three years.
As a starting point, Japan is expected to urge the North's new leadership to reinvestigate the cases of 12 of 17 abductees on Japan's official list -- all except five who returned to Japan in October 2002.
But it is unclear if North Korea will respond.
Officials in Pyongyang have argued Japan must change its stance and work toward improving overall ties with North Korea rather than focusing almost exclusively on the abductions.
In an interview on Aug. 31 in Pyongyang, Kim Chol Ho, vice director of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department, expressed disappointment with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's policy toward North Korea, claiming it had been doing too little to improve ties.
''The Japanese side should consider how to improve the soured atmosphere between (North) Korea and Japan,'' he said, urging Tokyo to lift bilateral sanctions imposed on Pyongyang since it carried out a first nuclear test in October 2006.
North Korea walked out of the aid-for-denuclearization negotiations involving China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States in April 2009 and the following month conducted a second nuclear test.