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Japan, North Korea Prepare for First Public Contact in 2 Years

Red Cross officials from Japan and North Korea are to meet Sunday in Beijing for talks about missing Japanese and other humanitarian issues. The move resumes public contacts between Tokyo and Pyongyang after a two-year break.

The sensitive issue of the whereabouts of 11 Japanese nationals will top the agenda. Tokyo thinks North Korean agents kidnapped the people in the 1970s and 1980s, to teach spies about Japan. Pyongyang has always denied that assertion, but recently agreed to resume the search for what it calls the missing people.

Masao Okonogi, a North Korea expert at Japan's Keio University, says the importance of the meeting is unclear, but that it may help the two countries in their quest to establish formal ties. He adds that impoverished North Korea desperately needs food. He says it is probably hoping Japan will provide aid soon after the meeting.

The alleged kidnappings have stalled talks on normalizing relations since October 2000.

Japanese Foreign Ministry officials say Pyongyang is expected to bring up a counter-claim about 259 North Koreans it says disappeared in Japan before the end of World War II. The North Koreans were brought to Japan as forced laborers. In the past, Pyongyang has demanded that Tokyo search for them. Japan has promised in the past to do so, but so far none have been found.

Tokyo also wants to discuss the fate of about 2,000 Japanese women who live in North Korea with their Korean spouses. The Japanese government says a plan enabling them to visit their homeland will be discussed.

The Beijing gathering is taking place amid indications that North Korea may be interested in re-establishing ties with other countries. Pyongyang largely shut out the United States and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan, after President Bush took office in January of 2001 and said he would reconsider relations with the isolated, Stalinist nation.

But early this month, a South Korean envoy visited Pyongyang in the two nations' first public meeting since November. At that time, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was quoted as saying he would resume family reunions and other exchanges with Seoul, and that he was interested in reopening contacts with the United States and Japan.