Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi makes a one-day trip to the capital of North Korea on Saturday. Expectations are high that the visit will lead to a breakthrough in the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens, which has prevented the two countries from moving toward normalizing relations.
The Japanese prime minister is expected to spend much of Saturday pressing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on the abductions. The two men will spend the morning in talks in Pyongyang, before Mr. Koizumi returns to Tokyo late in the day.
Mr. Koizumi aims to bring back with him the relatives of five Japanese citizens who were held captive in North Korea for decades. The five were allowed to return to their homeland more than a year and a half ago, but their seven children, and the husband of one, were not allowed to leave Pyongyang.
The prime minister first went to North Korea in September 2002. At that meeting, Mr. Kim made the stunning admission that Pyongyang had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970's and 1980's, to help train spies. Mr. Kim said eight had died, but five were allowed to return to Japan.
When abductee Kaoru Hasuike and his wife left Pyongyang in September 2002, they told their children they were going on a short business trip.
Mr. Hasuike says he and his wife never told their children that they had been abducted or even that they were Japanese. He says he wants to be able to explain the circumstances and hopes their children can believe what their parents tell them is the truth.
The abduction issue is an emotional one for Japan, where dozens of people are believed to have been snatched by North Korean agents over the years.
The Asahi Shimbun on Friday reported North Korea wants a signed pledge from Japan on 250,000 tons of donated rice. The newspaper says the Japanese government has rebuffed that demand because it does not want to give the impression of bartering for the abductees' family members.
An earlier report about the aid, broadcast on Nippon Television, brought an angry response from the government, which, at one point banned the network from the prime minister's trip to Pyongyang.
The Sankei newspaper has reported Japan also is prepared to give Pyongyang $10 million worth of medical supplies through an international organization "if there is progress over the abduction issue."
On Saturday, the prime minister also will seek concrete answers about the fate of abductees who North Korea has said are dead or whose whereabouts are unknown. A forensic medicine expert will be part of Mr. Koizumi's delegation in case there is a need to help identify possible abductees or their remains.
Mr. Koizumi declined to meet the families of the missing before he left for Pyongyang but officials say he will brief them on the talks when he returns.
Those families took to the streets of Tokyo this week, demanding more from their government.
Takeo Yokota, whose sister Megumi was abducted by North Korean agents, tells a rally that it is not enough for the prime minister to bring the relatives of the former abductees but that those still missing must be accounted for.
North Korean officials have said Ms. Yokota, who was snatched on her way home from school at the age of 13, hanged herself in 1993.
One factor complicating Saturday's summit is the case of the American husband of one of the returnees. Sixty-four-year-old Charles Jenkins is married to Hitomi Soga.
He is considered to have deserted his U.S. Army post in South Korea in 1965 and fled to the communist north. His family contends the North Koreans kidnapped and brainwashed Mr. Jenkins. His nephew, James Hyman in the U.S. state of North Carolina, told the Japan News Network the U.S. government has no evidence Mr. Jenkins defected.
"Thus far they have not proven anything. I hope the Japanese government has successfully convinced President Bush to let him come back to Japan," he said.
The Japanese government has asked Washington to not insist on Mr. Jenkins' arrest. But on Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, said Mr. Jenkins is still classified as a deserter and would be dealt with by the U.S. military justice system.
Mr. Koizumi also is expected to tell Mr. Kim that the dispute over North Korea's nuclear programs must be resolved before relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang can be normalized.
The issue of North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons programs is stalemated in talks involving both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. Washington says North Korea has a secret weapons program in violation of several international accords.