Photo/IllutrationJapanese wives who returned to Japan from North Korea are dressed in traditional Korean clothing when they attend a welcome-home party held by the Japanese Red Cross Society in Tokyo in 1998. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A new environment of dialogue among countries over the situation in the Korean Peninsula is producing notable developments concerning North Korea’s humanitarian issues.

Japan also has the problem of many Japanese nationals who have been trapped in the diplomatic abyss of the secluded country’s international isolation.

In addition to victims of North Korea’s past abductions, there are also Japanese who were stranded in the country after the end of World War II and have since been unable to return home. Moreover, there are Japanese spouses of former North Korean residents in Japan who went to the country under a postwar program to help ethnic Koreans return home that continued until the mid-1980s.

The Japanese government should take this opportunity to tackle the problem to meet the expectations of people longing to see progress in the situation.

Last week, hundreds of North and South Koreans who are members of families that were separated by the 1950-53 Korea War were reunited. The tearful family reunions after more than six decades of separation took place at a resort near Mount Kumgang in North Korea.

South Korea’s successive governments have kept demanding that war-torn families be given opportunities to be reunited as a humanitarian issue. But North Korea has been using this issue as a bargaining chip for political negotiations.

The latest round of family reunions was the first in about three years and organized amid a thaw in the bilateral relationship since the Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Pyongyang also has a history of using humanitarian issues to strengthen its hand in political negotiations with the United States.

Before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June, Pyongyang released three U.S. citizens it had detained on spying and other charges.

Last month, North Korea handed over the remains of U.S. service members who died in the North during the Korean War. These moves were clearly aimed at improving Pyongyang’s position in its nuclear talks with the Trump administration.

On Aug. 26, North Korean media reported that a Japanese tourist detained during a trip to the country had been deported.

While details remain unclear, it is possible that the decision was intended as some sort of diplomatic message to Japan.

Four years ago, Japan and North Korea announced a Stockholm agreement that committed Pyongyang to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the fates of all Japanese that may be in the North, including recognized abductees and those who are missing and believed to have been taken to the country.

Under the deal, the promised investigation should also cover the estimated 1,800 Japanese spouses of former North Korean residents in Japan as well as the remains of Japanese who died in what is now North Korea around 1945.

The Japanese government has been calling on the North to allow the Japanese spouses wishing to return home to make a temporary visit to Japan.

By 2000, a total of 43 such Japanese were allowed to travel to Japan on three occasions. Since then, no others have set foot again on their native land.

Tokyo has to keep up pressure on Pyongyang to make sincere responses to Japanese demands concerning the kidnap victims.

At the same time, however, the Japanese government needs to make tenacious efforts for progress on other humanitarian issues involving North Korea.

Many of the people involved are becoming increasingly impatient as time is growing short to resolve the issues.

The outlook of the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea’s nuclear programs remains murky.

There is not even a hint of progress toward full-fledged diplomatic talks between Japan and North Korea.

The Japanese government should do more to explore possibilities of dialogue with the North while coordinating its diplomatic efforts with the United States and South Korea.

There is no excuse for Tokyo to procrastinate on grabbing the opportunity offered by the current situation to deal with the humanitarian problems that have been left festering for many years.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 28