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Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2002

Kin thank Koizumi for raising abduction issue

Staff Writer

A group seeking the return of Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted to North Korea expressed surprise and gratitude Monday that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi raised the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush during their summit.

"We greatly appreciate that Koizumi brought up the subject during the talks, especially since we had requested only last week that he do so," said Kazuhiro Araki, director general of the Tokyo-based National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea.

Through Katsuei Hirasawa, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, the association sent Koizumi a letter Thursday requesting that he mention that the mystery over at least 10 missing Japanese nationals should be resolved.

The letter was signed by Shigeru Yokota, representing families of those allegedly abducted. Yokota's daughter Megumi, who disappeared from Niigata Prefecture in 1977, is one of the people the government says was probably kidnapped to North Korea.

"The abductions must be considered a terrorist attack. Innocent civilians were kidnapped by the North Korean military," Yokota said, adding that Koizumi has agreed to meet with Yokota and other families soon.

"Koizumi said that he definitely wanted to meet with the families," he said. "They had previously met with Prime Ministers Keizo Obuchi and Yoshiro Mori. Though no date has been set, the meeting will probably be sometime during the first or second week in March."

The association and its political supporters appreciate the U.S. president's remarks about North Korea being part of an "axis of evil," saying that it helps make it easier to push the Japanese government into action and forces Koizumi to take a firmer stand on the issue.

"Over 170 Diet members belong to a group that is pushing for normalizing ties between Japan and North Korea, and many of them, like LDP heavyweight Hiromu Nonaka, are opposed to Koizumi's policy priorities, including structural reforms," a member of the LDP who is familiar with the issue said on condition of anonymity. "Therefore, Koizumi has had to tread lightly on the issue previously. But with the U.S. president by his side, he felt that he could raise the issue without being attacked by his opponents."

Opinions in Japan had been divided, however, on whether assistance from the U.S. should come in the form of tough talk or quiet diplomacy.

North Korea at first denied any abductions had occurred but then agreed to conduct an investigation into the allegations.

However, it announced late last year it was suspending searches for the abductees. Making matters worse, a few days later Japan sank a mystery ship in international waters that the government maintains belonged to North Korea.

The kidnapping issue has remained a major stumbling block in attempts by Japan to conduct normalization talks with North Korea. Such talks last took place in October 2000 but were broken off by North Korea.

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