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Japan, South Korea Discuss North Korea - 2002-03-22


Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Friday Japan will work toward normalizing relations with North Korea despite some major obstacles. But while visiting South Korea, Mr. Koizumi ruled out sending food aid to the North until nagging issues have been resolved.

Japan's tense relations with North Korea took center stage Friday at a summit between South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Seoul.

Mr. Kim told reporters after the talks, the two leaders had pledged to coordinate their efforts on dialogue with North Korea in close cooperation with the United States.

He said Japan would try to establish official ties with North Korea, despite some major stumbling blocks. Mr. Kim was referring chiefly to Tokyo's complaint that Pyongyang abducted at least 11 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to learn about the language and culture for espionage purposes. North Korea denies the charge.

Mr. Koizumi said in Seoul he would like to formalize ties with North Korea, but that the abduction issue makes that difficult. He also said that providing food aid to the North was a problem for the same reason. Japan and North Korea have never had diplomatic relations. However, Tokyo provided the impoverished North with food shipments until last year, when there was a national uproar over the alleged kidnappings.

Talks to establish formal ties began 11 years ago, but have stalled numerous times because of the abduction issue and other perceived wrongs. President Kim's sunshine policy of engaging the reclusive North Korean regime has also run into problems, waning considerably since President Bush took office 15 months ago and announced that he was re-examining Washington's contacts with Pyongyang.

Mr. Kim and his Japanese counterpart also signed an investment accord Friday, and agreed to embark on a process of, one day, establishing a free trade agreement. This would significantly strengthen the already growing economic ties between the two countries.

The two leaders are meeting 10 weeks before Japan and South Korea co-host the World Cup soccer finals. They are eager to calm their countries' often testy relations before the games open. Many older Koreans remember Japan as a harsh colonial ruler in the first half of the twentieth century and both governments say they are now trying to move forward and build a strong, friendly alliance.