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Japanese, N. Korean Officials Discuss Abductees, Diplomatic Ties - 2004-08-11

Japanese and North Korean officials are meeting in Beijing, hoping to remove stumbling blocks toward establishing diplomatic ties.

Discussions center on the fate of several Japanese kidnapped by North Korea as far back as three decades ago.

The abduction issue is one of the main impediments to normalizing relations between the two countries, and will dominate the two-day meeting that began Wednesday.

North Korea has admitted kidnapping 13 Japanese to help train North Korean spies during the 1970's and '80's. Five were allowed to return to Japan two years ago, and Pyongyang says the other eight have died from illness, suicide or accidents, though it offered no proof.

The Japanese government, however, thinks a total of 10 are still missing and wants a full accounting of their fates.

During talks with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang in May, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il promised to investigate the kidnappings. Japan sent $47 million in food aid to the North following the summit.

Arriving in Beijing for the talks, the head of the North Korean delegation said the investigation is "still going on."

The normalization process also has been stalled by the international dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea admits to having a plutonium-based nuclear program. But the United States says it also is trying to build uranium-based weapons, and demands that Pyongyang dismantle both programs.

Hiro Katsumata, a fellow on Japanese foreign policy at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, says the nuclear issue is driving the normalization efforts. He says Pyongyang wants to open diplomatic relations with Japan to help blunt U.S. disarmament efforts.

"I don't see any serious friendship between Japan and North Korea, unfortunately," he said. "This is just international politics instead of friendship building?. This is not a bilateral issue, this is a multilateral issue in the context of the nuclear weapons talks."

North Korea is demanding security guarantees and aid in exchange for freezing its nuclear programs. Three rounds of talks on the issue involving Japan, the United States, China, South Korea, Russia and North Korea have shown little result. The fourth round is due in Beijing in September.

Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Tokyo never established diplomatic ties with Pyongyang after the peninsula was divided into a communist North and capitalist South.