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Japan PM Set for Talks in N. Korea - 2002-09-16

Japan's prime minister arrives in North Korea Tuesday for an unprecedented summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Junichiro Koizumi wants to work toward resolving a series of thorny issues that keep the two countries from opening diplomatic ties.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is set to arrive in Pyongyang Tuesday for a nine-hour visit. He will be the first Japanese leader to visit North Korea since World War II.

Japan's brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula ended nearly 60 years ago, but the two Northeast Asian neighbors have yet to normalize relations.

From Japan's viewpoint, resolving a series of suspected kidnappings would be the first step toward better relations. Japan believes North Korea abducted 11 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies so they could slip in to South Korea. North Korea denies the allegations.

Shigeru Yokota's daughter Megumi is among those thought to have been kidnapped. She disappeared 25 years ago.

"I wish that Mr. Koizumi could bring back the abductees with him but that is unlikely," she said. "But at least, I hope to learn more about their safety. I want concrete progress, such as a date when we can see them or when they will return to Japan. Otherwise the upcoming meeting will not be successful and the wishes of the [Japanese] public will be betrayed."

Other unresolved issues could come into play at the Koizumi-Kim summit. They include Pyongyang's test firing of a missile in 1998 that flew over Japanese territory. Tokyo also may want to discuss intrusions by suspected North Korean spy ships into Japanese territory. Recent intrusions have raised tensions between the two countries.

Last week, the Japanese coast guard raised a suspected North Korean spy vessel that sank in the East China Sea last December after a firefight with Japanese patrol ships.

For its part, North Korea demands compensation for Japan's colonial rule that lasted from 1910-1945. Japanese media reports say the two nations have reached a basic agreement on an economic package. It will reportedly be finalized after normalization talks resume. The Japanese foreign ministry has not confirmed the reports.

The summit comes as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il tries to improve his impoverished country's image. In July, Pyongyang unexpectedly expressed regret for a naval clash that killed five South Korean sailors.

It has since held a series of meetings with South Korea on projects such as re-linking a cross-border railway. The two nations last week also held a fifth reunion of families divided by the Korean War, which ended in 1953 with no peace treaty.

In addition, North Korea has signaled that it wants to resume a long-stalled dialogue with Washington. In January, President Bush grouped North Korean with Iran and Iraq as part of an axis of evil nations, developing or possessing weapons of mass destruction.

Masao Okonogi is a North Korean specialist with Keio University.

"I think the upcoming meeting will be successful because the stance of Kim Jong-il is very weak," he sadi. "That means that the United States and Japan have a strong position. It would be damaging for Mr. Koizumi to come back with nothing, but if the meeting fails, it would be worse for Mr. Kim. If that occurs, Japan and [its key ally] the United States will recognize that there is no chance of normalizing ties with North Korea."

A survey by Japan's Asahi newspaper shows that 53 percent of the public expects ties with North Korea to improve after the summit, while 46 percent say their expectations are low.

Analysts such as Mr. Okonogi say there is no guarantee that Mr. Koizumi will succeed in winning over Kim Jong-il. One newspaper editorial notes that if the visit ends with no concrete progress, it could disappoint that public and deal a harsh blow to the Japanese leadership.