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Japan PM Downplays Hopes for North Korea Trip - 2002-09-08

Japan's prime minister is attempting to play down hopes for his coming summit with North Korea's reclusive leader. But Junichiro Koizumi says it is time to see if Japan can establish diplomatic relations with its neighbor. Japan has high hopes for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's trip to Pyongyang on September 17. Political analysts see the trip as a gamble for the Japanese leader, who risks a backlash from his own party if he comes back home without a breakthrough. But Mr. Koizumi plays down his face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-il, the reclusive leader of communist North Korea.

Mr. Koizumi said that although it is unclear how Pyongyang will react to the summit, he is obligated to find out whether the North Korean government is serious about trying to normalize relations. Mr. Koizumi was speaking at a political function outside Tokyo on Sunday.

Japan and North Korea have never had diplomatic relations.

There are reports in the Japanese news media that Mr. Koizumi, who meets with President Bush later this week in New York, may convey a message from Mr. Bush urging Mr. Kim to re-start a dialogue with Washington.

At the top of Japan's agenda for the Pyongyang meeting is a demand for information on the fate of about a dozen Japanese, apparently kidnapped over the years by North Korean spies.

The North Koreans have long said their prerequisite for diplomatic relations is a concrete apology from Japan for its occupation of the Korean peninsula during the first half of the 20th century.

Some Japanese media reports say Koizumi is ready to pledge a large amount of aid to North Korea in exchange for information on the missing Japanese.