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Saturday, 23 March, 2002, 12:44 GMT
N Korea pressed on 'kidnapped' Japanese
Junichiro Koizumi (centre)
It is Mr Koizumi's second visit to South Korea in six months
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has cautiously welcomed reports that North Korea will resume talks on a long-running dispute over the alleged abduction of Japanese nationals.

The North Korean Red Cross was reported on Friday to be ready to meet their Japanese counterparts on the issue.

Japan believes at least 11 of its nationals were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s, but Pyongyang has repeatedly denied involvement.

Some Japanese media reported there were suggestions from North Korea that one of those abducted was alive - but this has been dismissed as speculation by a Tokyo official.

The issue has hampered negotiations between the two countries on establishing formal diplomatic relations.

Tokyo watching

"We have been demanding North Korea take proper measures to deal with the abduction cases. If this [announcement] was made as part of those measures, we would welcome it," Mr Koizumi was quoted as saying.

"But we have to watch their actions to determine how serious they are," he said at the end of a three-day visit to South Korea.

On Friday he said Japan would not give food aid to North Korea unless it attempted to resolve the issue.
North Korea's Kim Jong-il (r) with South Korea's Kim Dae-jung
North Korea was branded part of an "axis of evil" by the US

Tokyo believes the Japanese were abducted to be trained as spies or to teach Japanese language and customs to Pyongyang's operatives.

A number of major Japanese newspapers and news agencies said on Saturday that diplomats from North Korea had "implied" that one abducted national was alive.

Some reports named her as Keiko Arimoto who disappeared in 1983 after studying in Britain.

However an unnamed Japanese foreign ministry official dismissed the reports as speculative, saying Japan had received no such information from North Korea, according to the Associated Press news agency.

The issue of the alleged kidnapping has impeded talks on normalising relations since they began in 1991.

Their last official meeting was late in 2000 - when Tokyo demanded a solution to the abduction dispute while Pyongyang sought compensation for Japan's colonial rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945.

Mr Koizumi's second official visit to South Korea since taking office was aimed at improving ties between the two countries - just weeks before they co-host the World Cup football finals.

His last trip in October was overshadowed by rows over Japan's handling of its wartime past.

See also:

22 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
World Cup hosts stress teamwork
11 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Clouds gather over Koizumi's Seoul visit
16 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea marks leader's birthday
06 Aug 01 | Europe
Kim Jong-il's Russian odyssey
27 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea offers amnesty
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