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Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 04:29 GMT 05:29 UK
N Korea agrees to Japanese search
Japanese Red Cross official Higashiura Hirushi (right) with North Korean counterpart Ri Ho Rim
The talks have much wider significance for relations
North Korea has agreed to search for Japanese nationals believed kidnapped decades ago, Red Cross officials from the two states said after talks in Beijing on Tuesday.

The Communist state also agreed to allow Japanese wives of North Koreans to visit Japan.

In return, Japan is to search for Koreans taken to Japan before 1945.

The agreements come after two days of talks at a hotel in the Chinese capital - the first in two years between the two countries' Red Cross officials.

Such meetings, observers say, are a means of diplomacy used by Tokyo and Pyongyang.

A new round of talks, at an undisclosed location, was agreed for June.

Tokyo says North Korea abducted 11 Japanese nationals 25 years ago to train them as spies or to teach North Korean agents the Japanese language and customs.

North Korea, for its part, says that 259 North Koreans went missing in Japan before and during World War II.

Japan colonised the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945, forcing hundreds of thousands of Koreans into slave labour and prostitution.

Tuesday's agreement also means that about 1,800 Japanese women married to North Koreans can now visit their home country.

They moved to North Korea with their ethnic Korean husbands between 1959 and 1982.

History of antagonism

The dispute over the missing Japanese and the wives has stood in the way of normalising relations between the two countries for years.

Last December, North Korea broke off contacts on the issue after a Japanese coast guard fired on a suspected North Korean spy boat that entered Japanese waters.

Japanese divers are preparing to start surveys this week of the ship that sank in the east China Sea in December, Reuters news agency has reported.

All 15 crew members are believed to have died in the incident.

Japanese intelligence sources have said they suspect the ship was on a spying or drug-smuggling mission, but North Korea says that is part of a smear campaign.

See also:

28 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Tears as Korean relatives are reunited
25 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: North Korea's strategic moves
29 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Pyongyang paves way for US visit
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