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Japan, North Korea Hold Red Cross Talks - 2002-08-18

Red Cross officials from Japan and North Korea have opened two days of talks in Pyongyang in an attempt to clear the way for negotiations on establishing diplomatic ties. Delegates from the Japanese and North Korean Red Cross societies met Sunday at Pyongyang's People's Palace of Culture with a challenging agenda for their two-day meeting.

There are several key issues on the table. Tokyo is demanding to know the fate of at least 11 missing Japanese nationals that it alleges were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s to train North Korean spies.

When the two countries last held normalization talks in October of 2000, North Korea agreed to examine the cases of what it calls the "missing Japanese persons." But last December, after a Japanese Coast Guard ship sank a suspected North Korean spy ship in Japanese waters, Pyongyang canceled the search.

Tokyo also wants North Korea to let the Japanese wives of North Koreans to visit their homeland. About 1,800 Japanese women married North Korean men between 1959 and 1980, and Pyongyang has rarely granted them the right to return to Japan.

For its part, North Korea wants compensation for Japanese colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula for much of the first half of the 20th century.

The Red Cross meeting is a prelude to next week's talks between North Korean and Japanese foreign ministry officials on establishing diplomatic ties for the first time.

Before the talks opened Sunday, Japanese foreign ministry officials called the atmosphere in Pyongyang friendly and said the North Korean side appeared to be more open to dialogue. North Korean Red Cross delegate Ri Ho Rim also expressed optimism.

The meeting comes amid other signs that North Korea wants better relations with the outside world as it launches landmark measures to invigorate its impoverished economy. The North resumed cabinet-level reconciliation talks with rival South Korea last week, in which they pledged to restart a number of joint projects. The two Koreas remain technically at war since the Korean conflict ended in 1953 with no peace deal.

Pyongyang has also said it would like to reopen talks with South Korea's leading ally, the United States, but no date has been set.