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Japan Urges N. Korea to Resume Red Cross Talks - 2002-03-24

Japan has urged North Korea to resume talks through the countries' Red Cross organizations on the fate of as many as 11 Japanese people allegedly kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. The issue is a major stumbling block to normalized relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

Japan is seeking to reopen, within weeks, the Red Cross talks that were suspended two years ago.

The move follows Friday's announcement by the North Korean Red Cross that it would resume searching for Japanese nationals who, Tokyo believes, were kidnapped by Pyongyang agents for language and espionage purposes. Pyongyang has always denied the charges, but in periodic dialogue with Tokyo, has agreed to refer to the alleged abductions as "missing persons" cases.

News reports here say Japanese and North Korean officials held secret meetings in the northeast Chinese city of Dalian last weekend to discuss the cases, the latest in a string of such third country contacts with North Korea. Japan and the communist North do not have diplomatic ties.

The North Korean Red Cross said in a statement Friday it decided to continue its probe into the missing Japanese. But the statement denied Pyongyang government involvement in the case of Keiko Arimoto, 23, who Japan claims was abducted in Europe and brought to North Korea in 1983.

The Arimoto case came to light last week after Megumi Yao, the former wife of one of the nine Japanese Red Army terrorists who hijacked a Japan Airlines plane to North Korea and defected there in 1970, said she had been involved in the abduction.

Previously, Japan maintained that North Korean agents abducted at least 10 Japanese nationals in seven cases in the 1970s and 1980s. Arimoto's case brought the number to 11.

North Korean diplomats, according to Japanese news reports attributed to unnamed sources, had "strongly suggested" to their Japanese counterparts during the talks in Dalian that Ms. Arimoto is alive and that two other Japanese men allegedly abducted 20 years ago have died.

But, in Tokyo, the Foreign Ministry denied the reports, calling them "total speculation." Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said while on a visit to Pusan, South Korea, Saturday, that he would welcome the development if it was a response to Japan's repeated requests for Pyongyang to deal with the problem. Relatives of the missing Japanese also expressed skepticism and caution.

Normalization talks between Japan and North Korea started in 1991, but have been deadlocked over the abduction issue and Pyongyang demands for compensation to atone for Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea.