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Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 18:00 GMT 19:00 UK
Analysis: Pyongyang's U-turn on abductions
Kim Jong-Il  (left) shakes hands with Koizumi
The two leaders each face major obstacles

For years, North Korea refused even to discuss the allegations that its agents had kidnapped Japanese citizens. The charges were condemned as a malicious fabrication.

Shigeru Yokota (left) wails as his wife, Sakie, speaks in tears during a press conference in Tokyo after learning their daughter, Megumi, is confirmed dead
Relatives were devastated by the news
Hints of a change came earlier this year when North Korea said it would try to locate any missing people.

Then came the stunning confession by the supreme leader himself, Kim Jong-il, that Japanese citizens had indeed been kidnapped by elements in the North Korean military. He said eight had since died and only four were still alive.

Most of the missing people were in their early twenties - some were apparently plucked from Japanese beaches by North Korean commandos.

They were wanted to help teach Japanese language and customs to North Korean spies.

Breakthrough visit

It took a visit to Pyongyang by the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to achieve such a breakthrough. And to win an apology from Mr Kim.

Megumi Yokota
Confirmed dead: Megumi Yokota
Japan's missing
  • Eight Japanese confirmed dead
  • Four still alive in North Korea
  • Kim Jong-il says he has punished the culprits
    See also:

  • Much was at stake for both leaders at their meeting.

    North Korea badly needs financial help at a time when it is experimenting with market reforms for its wrecked command economy.

    Mr Kim is also feeling the heat from the United States which counts North Korea as part of its "axis of evil".

    Better ties with Washington's main ally in Asia could help relieve the pressure.

    Mr Kim agreed to extend indefinitely a moratorium on ballistic missile tests. He also agreed to abide by international agreements on North Korea's nuclear programme - gestures aimed at the US as much as Tokyo.

    But they are minimal steps and will not be enough to win over the highly sceptical Bush administration.

    The worry in Washington is that Japan will give away too much to North Korea.

    The communist state can expect a massive aid package from Tokyo if their relations are normalised - and the talks are due to start within a month.

    Troubled relations
    Aug 1910 - Japan colonises Korea
    Aug 1945 - Japan surrenders in WWII; Korea is partitioned
    Sept 1990 - Japanese PM apologises to N Korea
    Jan 1990 - first round of normalisation talks
    Aug 1998 - N Korean ballistic missile flies over Japan; Tokyo imposes sanctions
    Sept 2002 - the Pyongyang talks

    Mr Kim will probably see the meeting in Pyongyang as something of a triumph - a key step in efforts to preserve his beleaguered regime.

    Mr Koizumi, though, will have mixed feelings about the outcome.

    He has helped resolve the mystery of the missing people - although many more questions remain to be answered.

    But he will be severely criticised if he offers aid to the North.

    "The North Korean Government has confessed it's a terrorist country, it's ridiculous for us to assist such a regime - I've very angry about it," said Yoriko Koike, an MP for the New Conservative party in Japan's ruling coalition.

    Relatives of those now confirmed to have been kidnapped are devastated and bewildered by the news from Pyongyang.

    They have strong political and media support and are already demanding Japan give nothing away.

    The normalisation talks may not be as straightforward as North Korea imagines.

    It has waited for years to play the Japan card - a way to break out of its diplomatic isolation and the promise of massive economic help.

    It badly needs success at a time when the US is running out of patience with its brinkmanship over various weapons programmes.

    The BBC's Charles Scanlon in Tokyo
    "An extraordinary development"
    Takeshi Kondo, Japanese MP
    "Kim Jong-il made a good step forwards"

    Nuclear tensions

    Inside North Korea

    Divided peninsula

    See also:

    17 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
    17 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
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