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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May, 2004, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Japan's PM to visit N Korea
Kim Jong-il and Junichiro Koizumi shake hands at 17 September 2002 summit
North Korea admitted to the kidnappings in 2002
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is to make a rare visit to North Korea for talks with leader Kim Jong-il, Tokyo has confirmed.

Next week's trip will focus on a row over Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korea during the Cold War.

After a previous visit, Mr Koizumi won the release of five kidnap victims.

But their eight family members, including a US-born husband and seven North Korean-born children, have not been allowed to join them.

JAPAN'S MISSING
Megumi Yokota (file picture)
Snatched in the '70s and '80s
Used as cultural trainers for N Korean spies
Five allowed home in 2002
Their children still in N Korea
Eight said to be dead, others missing

Mr Koizumi will go to North Korea on 22 May, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said on Friday.

He will try and secure the release of the kidnap victims' relatives.

North Korea has always argued that their families should come to North Korea to collect them - fuelling fears that they would never be allowed to leave again.

The Japanese government is also under pressure to question Pyongyang further on the issue of dozens of other Japanese nationals who are thought to have been kidnapped by North Korean agents but never accounted for.

"The prime minister has decided to break diplomatic protocol and make a second visit. It shows his strong will to make a breakthrough and I praise that," Toru Hasuike, the brother of returned kidnap victim Kaoru Hasuike, told state broadcaster NHK.

At Mr Koizumi's first summit with Mr Kim, in September 2002, the secretive leader admitted his agents had abducted at least 13 Japanese during the Cold War.

The question of what happened to eight others has always been shrouded in mystery, and there are suspicions that others were kidnapped around the same time.

Analysts believe that a breakthrough in the dispute over the abductees could clear the way for talks on establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Mr Koizumi said such ties would be forged last time he visited North Korea, in return for Mr Kim's admission about the kidnappings. But talks then stalled amid the continuing row over the abduction issue.

It is believed that Mr Koizumi agreed to give substantial aid to North Korea during the 2002 summit, and Pyongyang will hope to secure further aid at next week's talks.

The visit, if it results in the return of the kidnap victims' families, could be a major political coup for the Japanese prime minister ahead of Upper House elections in July.

Mr Koizumi has been under pressure recently over his decision to send troops to help rebuild Iraq.

Nuclear crisis

Mr Hosoda said the Japanese leader will also broach the issue of North Korea's nuclear programme.

The US and its allies in the region, including Japan and South Korea, want Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and other concessions.

Those countries, along with China and Russia, are currently engaged in working-level talks with North Korea on its nuclear programme.

Pyongyang said on Thursday that Washington's insistence on the complete dismantling of its programme before it is granted other benefits was "humiliating", and China warned that "major" differences remain to be resolved.

The talks are aimed at paving the way for higher-level six-nation talks, expected to take place in Beijing before the end of June.




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