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Japanese Foreign Minister Cools Talk on North Korea Sanctions

Diplomatic efforts continue to try getting North Korea back to the negotiating table to discuss dismantling its nuclear weapons program. Japanese and Russian diplomats say it is too soon in the negotiating process to consider imposing sanctions on Pyongyang.

While some Japanese politicians are calling for economics sanctions on North Korea, Japan's foreign minister is now urging caution.

Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura says while sanctions should be kept as an option, there is the risk that Pyongyang would use them as an excuse to back out of talks with Japan. This is seen as a softening of his stance - Mr. Machimura two months ago expressed support for sanctions.

Calls for sanctions have grown in Japan because of North Korea's reluctance to give full details about its Cold War era abductions of Japanese citizens. The fate of missing abductees is an emotional issue for the Japanese public.

Russia's ambassador to Japan, Alexander Losyukov, on Monday warned that any sanctions imposed by Japan could have severe consequences. "If one party unilaterally starts doing something about the North Korean situation, it can bring about a very difficult problem and, probably, a catastrophe," he said.

Mr. Losyukov previously served as his country's delegate to the six-country talks about North Korean's nuclear weapons program. He says he believes Pyongyang could return to the table as soon as late January. He told reporters in Tokyo that North Korea is waiting until after President Bush assembles his new policy team and is inaugurated for his second term.

Russia, Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea and the United States have met three times since last year to discuss the nuclear issue. Pyongyang refused to attend a fourth round originally set for September.

Washington's envoy to the talks, Joseph DeTrani, heads to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo this week to attend meetings on the nuclear dispute.

South Korea says Unification Minister Chung Dong-young also plans to visit China this month to discuss the nuclear standoff.

In a speech in Paris on Sunday, South Korea' president cautioned parties to the talks not to wait for a regime change in North Korea. President Roh Moo-hyun told Koreans in France differences must be narrowed between countries desiring a new government, such as the United States, and those that do not, including China and South Korea.

Tensions have been high on the Korean peninsula for more than two years since U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted to having a uranium-based arms program. The communist state has denied having that program, but says it is pursuing a plutonium-based program.