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Japan: N. Korea Showing Positive Signs in Nuclear Crisis - 2004-01-21

Japan is calling for another round of talks to end the nuclear crisis with North Korea and says it sees signs that the isolated Stalinist state may be willing to work toward a peaceful solution. The comments come as officials from Japan, South Korea and the United States meet in Washington to discuss the 16-month crisis.

Japanese leaders are indicating they have new hope for a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear dispute. In a speech to Parliament Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged lawmakers to closely monitor Pyongyang as efforts to set up another round of multi-party talks intensify. He says that Japan must see through to North Korea's real intentions. He says Tokyo remains in close contact with its allies and wants North Korea to respond fairly on nuclear, missile and bilateral issues.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi underscored the prime minister's view. Foreign Ministry officials said Wednesday that she told a South Korean security official that North Korea has recently sent some positive signals.

North Korea has offered to freeze its nuclear activities in exchange for security guarantees and oil shipments from the United States. It also has hinted it may move to resolve a dispute with Japan over the sensitive issue of Japanese citizens Pyongyang abducted in the 1970's and 1980's for espionage purposes.

The optimistic comments come as diplomats from Japan, South Korea and the United States prepare to meet in Washington to work on setting up a second round of six nation talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis. Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea, the United States and Russia held a first round of inconclusive talks in Beijing in August.

The dispute began 16 months ago when the United States said North Korea was developing a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of several international accords.

President Bush, in his State of the Union address, stressed that Pyongyang must dismantle its nuclear program with no conditions. "Along with nations in the region, we are insisting that North Korea eliminate its nuclear program."

Also Wednesday, North Korea slammed Tokyo's plan to increase its missile defense capabilities. The official Korean Central News Agency accused Japan of planning a preemptive nuclear strike against North Korea.

Japan confirmed in December it will deploy a U.S. system to improve its missile defense and will conduct joint missile research with the United States. But the system is defensive in nature and Japan possesses no nuclear weapons.

North Korea has frequently made similar inflammatory statements to increase its bargaining power with other nations.