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Japanese, North Korean Red Cross Officials to Meet - 2002-04-18

Japan's Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday that Red Cross officials from Japan and North Korea will meet in Beijing later this month to discuss the alleged abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea and other humanitarian issues. It will mark their first such meeting in more than two years.

Officials from the North Korean and Japanese Red Cross Societies plan to meet in Beijing April 29 and 30 to discuss the whereabouts of 11 Japanese citizens that Tokyo claims were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. The meeting was announced on North Korean state media Thursday and confirmed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Japan believes its nationals were abducted to help train North Korean spies in Japanese language and culture. Pyongyang has consistently denied any involvement but recently agreed to resume searching for what it calls the missing people.

Japanese government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda said that through this meeting, he hopes Tokyo will get a clear sense of North Korea's thinking on the issue.

The alleged kidnappings have long been a major obstacle in Tokyo and Pyongyang's attempts to establish formal ties. They began normalization talks in 1991 but suspended them in October of 2000, largely because of the abduction issue. Their chilly relations grew colder last December when a suspected North Korean spy ship exchanged fire with Japanese patrol boats.

Signs of a thaw emerged two months later, when Pyongyang freed a former Japanese journalist who had been detained in the North on espionage charges.

In Japan, public concern over the alleged abductions remains strong. The parents of two young women believed to have been forcibly taken by North Korean agents decades ago addressed a parliamentary committee Thursday. They urged the government to resolve the cases as soon as possible.

Akihiro Arimoto, 73, is the father of Keiko Arimoto, who vanished 19 years ago while studying in Europe. Mr. Arimoto complains that the Foreign Ministry is not doing enough to find her. He said that he and his wife want to see their child's face while they are still healthy.

Another humanitarian concern for Tokyo is the fate of an estimated 1,800 Japanese women who moved to North Korea with their ethnic Korean husbands between 1959 and 1982. They lost contact with their Japanese family members and Pyongyang has generally prevented them from visiting Japan. A handful traveled to their homeland in September of 2000.

The meeting in Beijing has come amid other signs that the isolated Stalinist state may be interested in re-establishing ties with other nations. Pyongyang largely turned away from the United States, and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan, after President Bush took office in January of 2001 and decided to re-examine Washington's relations with Pyongyang.