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S. Korea May Give North 'Bold Economic Assistance' in Exchange for Abductees

South Korea's top official on dealings with North Korea says Seoul is ready to pay Pyongyang for the return of abductees and prisoners of war. The proposal to pay the money, which the official calls "economic aid," was revealed to lawmakers Tuesday, just days before the scheduled start of high-level talks in Pyongyang between officials from the North and South.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok says his country is ready to offer what he calls "massive economic aid" to North Korea, to resolve the issue of South Korean abductees and prisoners of war being held by the North.

South Korea estimates the North continues to hold more than 500 prisoners taken during the 1950-53 war between the two countries. In addition, since the end of the war, Seoul estimates Pyongyang has abducted more than 400 South Koreans, many of whom are still believed to be alive.

Unification Minister Lee, who is scheduled to open talks with his North Korean counterpart Friday in Pyongyang, says solving the issue is an urgent matter.

He says failing to resolve the abductee issue could stand in the way of inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Lee has not specified how much money or infrastructure investment South Korea would be willing to provide the North in exchange for abductees.

However, the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun has frequently provided large amounts of food, fertilizer, and investment assistance to North Korea in recent years - often receiving little or nothing in return.

Choi Woo-yong is president of South Korea's largest abductee advocacy group, called Families of Abducted and Detained in North Korea. Her reaction to the unification minister's proposal is mixed.

On the one hand, says Choi, South Korean families are desperate to bring the abductees home. However, she says, South Korea has wasted plenty of public tax money on North Korea in the past - and wonders if an even bigger payoff this time will produce any results.

North Korea in the past has publicly denied having abducted any South Koreans. Pyongyang says any South Koreans living in the North are there voluntarily.

But a recent announcement by the Japanese government has put the abductee issue back in the spotlight here in South Korea. Tokyo says DNA test results provide "almost certain" proof that the husband of a Japanese

abductee is himself a South Korean, named Kim Young-nam, and believed to be still alive in North Korea.

South Korean authorities say it will take some time before they can independently confirm the Japanese DNA tests. Meanwhile, police sources confirm that the North Korean agent who abducted Kim Young-nam decades ago has since defected - and is living comfortably in South Korea.