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Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

Japan talking tough over abduction issue

Staff writer

Japan will not take part in any multinational deal to help North Korea economically unless substantial progress is made in the six-party talks on denuclearizing the hermit country, government officials said Tuesday.

"Even if we are asked to provide energy, money or food (to the North), we won't easily contribute," Foreign Minister Taro Aso told reporters.

"We have our own special situation. We have repeatedly said so both to the United States and China," Aso said, referring to the unresolved abductions of Japanese citizens.

The six-party denuclearization talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, the United States, China and Russia are scheduled to resume Thursday in Beijing after ending in deadlock in December.

U.S. and Chinese negotiators have begun floating ideas on economic assistance if Pyongyang takes some significant initial steps toward abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang reportedly has demanded 500,000 tons of fuel oil in return for suspending operations at a key plutonium-based reactor.

But for the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who owes much of his popularity to his hard stance on the abduction issue, any easy compromise would seriously damage his administration, officials said.

One senior Foreign Ministry official said that at least one or two Japanese abductees must be returned before the government provides any significant assistance. Pyongyang, however, maintains there are no Japanese abductees still alive in the North.

"If the North makes a very big concession on the abandonment of its nuclear (weapons), the story could be different, but the Japanese people won't be satisfied without progress in the abduction issue," the official said on condition of anonymity.

China and the U.S. have proposed that a subcommittee be set up under the six-party framework to discuss bilateral issues between North Korea and Japan, including the abductions and Japanese economic aid to Pyongyang. But establishment of such a forum will not be enough to get aid out of Japan, the official said.

Later Tuesday, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill met Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo and emphasized that the U.S. and Japan will cooperate closely during the upcoming round in Beijing.

Asked whether the U.S. supports Japan's position of not giving economic assistance without major progress on the abduction issue, Hill ducked the question.

"The six-party talks are representative of a broad platform, on which we are trying to address a number of issues," Hill told reporters at the Foreign Ministry.

Aso has even doubted the possibility of giving "humanitarian aid" to the North, saying he is not sure such help would really reach the people who need it.

"It is often said that you can't tell if the money you contribute (for the North) will be used for humanitarian assistance or pocketed by certain people," Aso said.

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The Japan Times

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