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Report: Koizumi to visit N. Korea next week
Updated: 2004-05-14 13:24

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will travel to North Korea as early as the end of next week to retrieve family members of Japanese citizens who were abducted decades ago by North Korea and released in 2002, news reports said Friday.

Kyodo News service said the trip would take place May 22; national broadcaster NHK said Koizumi would travel either May 22 or May 23. A Koizumi spokesman, Yu Kameoka, said he could not confirm the report.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, seen at parliament May 11, 2004, will go to North Korea late next week for talks on the families of Japanese citizens kidnapped decades ago by Pyongyang to train spies, Japanese media said May 14, 2004. A breakthrough in the dispute over the abductees would clear the way for talks on establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries and a coup for Koizumi ahead of a July Upper House election. [Reuters]
Kyodo said the government would make an announcement later Friday.

Speculation has been high in recent weeks that Koizumi could go to Pyongyang to get the family members. The issue is highly emotional in Japan, where the abductees and their supporters have accused the government of failing to make progress in talks with North Korea over the fate of those they left behind.

Such a trip, if successful, would be an important political coup for Koizumi, whose ruling coalition faces important elections in the upper house of Parliament in July.

The families of the kidnapping victims said they had high expectations for Koizumi.

"Once he goes there, we hope he will bring back the five abductees' families at the very least, and also find a resolution for other people who are still missing," said Toru Hasuike, whose brother, Kaoru Hasuike was abducted in the late 1970s and returned to Japan in 2002. He added the trip was "a brave decision."

North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping at least 13 Japanese citizens to train spies in the Japanese language and customs. Pyongyang said eight of them have since died, and it allowed the five survivors to return to Japan after a landmark 2002 summit between Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

That was Koizumi's last trip to the North.

Pyongyang, however, had so far refused to release the former abductees' family relatives, eight children and one husband alleged U.S. Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins, who has stayed behind with their two teenage daughters.

North Korea had argued in the past that the repatriation was only temporarily and Tokyo violated the agreement by keeping the former abductees in Japan.

It was not immediately clear on Friday whether North Korea had already agreed to release the relatives as a prerequisite for Koizumi's visit, and it was not certain how many of them would be included in such a deal. Jenkins, for example, has said he doesn't want to leave his adopted home.

Some in Japan have opposed a trip by Koizumi to pick up the relatives, arguing that Japan should not make such a move without Pyongyang satisfying Tokyo's additional demands to share information on the kidnapping victims that died in North Korea and others that Japan believes were abducted by Northern agents.

A North Korean agreement to finally allow the departure of the abductee relatives would reflect Pyongyang's need to advance talks on normalizing relations with Japan, home to the world's second-largest economy and a potential source of much needed aid for the impoverished state.

Officials from both sides met for two days last week to discuss the abductions but did not appear to make much progress.

Japan has long tried to link resolution of the abductions to six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, but that effort has been resisted by Pyongyang and not supported by Beijing, which is hosting working level talks this week on the nuclear issue.

In an apparent concession to Pyongyang this week, Tokyo said it would not attempt to engage North Korean delegates in a discussion of the abductions at the Beijing talks.

Flying to Pyongyang to retrieve the families would not be without risk for Koizumi.

Few foreign leaders have held summits with Kim, whose nuclear weapons development and aggressively isolationist policies have made his nation an international pariah. Some fear the North is using the abductee issue as a ploy to undermine the unity of Japan and other countries engaged in talks on North Korean nuclear weapons.

Other opponents of the summit simply don't trust North Korean promises, having seen them dissolve repeatedly in the past. In a statement issued this week, a support group representing the former abductees urged Koizumi to reconsider, saying the time for another summit is not yet ripe.

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