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Japan, N. Korea Fail to Resolve Dispute Over Cold War Abductions

Japan and North Korea have failed to resolve their dispute over Pyongyang's Cold War-era abduction of Japanese citizens, despite the surprise dispatch of a high-level Japanese delegation to Pyongyang. The meeting represented the two countries' first government-level talks since October 2002.

A Japanese delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka headed back to Tokyo empty-handed Saturday after several days of talks on the abduction issue with senior North Korean officials in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang acknowledged more than a year ago that North Korean agents had kidnapped Japanese during the Cold War, five of the abductees were allowed to return to Japan.

Many of them left family members behind in North Korea, however, and Tokyo wants them to be allowed to travel to Japan as well.

Pyongyang has refused, saying Japan broke a promise to send the five abductees back to North Korea. North Korea's state-run news agency on Saturday quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as accusing Japan of holding the five hostage.

Mr. Tanaka's delegation left for Pyongyang without any prior announcement earlier this week, and Japanese reports said the government hoped to have the matter settled in time for talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, which are due to begin in Beijing on February 25.

Japanese media on Saturday quoted a Tokyo government source as saying the two sides have agreed to continue negotiations on the abductees' families on the sidelines of the Beijing talks.

However, the North Korean dispatch Saturday warned Japan against bringing the topic up at the nuclear talks themselves. Tokyo originally wanted the abductions to be placed on the agenda, but North Korea has turned down that request.

In addition to North Korea and Japan, the nuclear talks include China, South Korea, the United States and Russia.

The five abductees were released in October 2002 following a summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, which was supposed to lay the groundwork for a reconciliation between the two nations.

During that summit, Mr. Kim admitted that North Korean agents had kidnapped a number of Japanese in the 1970s. He said only five were still alive, and those were the ones he allowed to leave. The two countries still do not have diplomatic ties, and Japan has now said it will resume normalization talks with the North only after the abduction issue is resolved.

The six-party talks have been the focus of a regional tour in the past few days by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Mr. Wang was in Seoul Saturday, after paying a visit to Japan. He and his South Korean counterparts said they hope the upcoming talks will bear fruit, because the first round of talks in Beijing six months ago ended without tangible progress.