Japanese leader arrives in North Korea for summit

Saturday, May 22, 2004

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Japan's prime minister arrived in North Korea on Saturday for a rare summit with leader Kim Jong Il, hoping to revive talks on normalizing relations and break an emotional deadlock over Japanese kidnapped a decade ago. Success at the one-day meeting later Saturday in the North Korean capital is crucial for both sides. Kim is in desperate need of foreign aid. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, embroiled in a pension scandal that has forced his top lieutenant to resign, needs to boost his public support before his ruling Liberal Democratic Party heads into parliamentary elections this summer.

Along with the abductions issue, Koizumi is expected to raise with Kim international concerns over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, to reconfirm North Korea's moratorium on long-range missile launches and to promise economic aid once formal diplomatic ties are established.

Koizumi's trip comes amid hopes that he would be able to win the release of family members of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago.

"I will put all my efforts into bringing back the eight family members," Koizumi said before boarding the plane early Saturday, vowing as well to work toward improving ties with North Korea.

The summit follows an unprecedented meeting between the two leaders in September 2002 during which Kim ended decades of denial and admitted North Korean agents had abducted at least 13 Japanese citizens train spies in Japanese language and culture.

Though North Korea claims eight have since died, it allowed five survivors to return to Japan but demanded they be returned.

Tokyo has refused to do so, and questioned the North's accounting of the fate of the others. Talks have since broken off and the abductees' seven children, ages 16 to 22, and the American husband of one remain in Pyongyang.

On the eve of the summit, doubts remained over whether he would succeed, but hopeful former abductees gathered in Tokyo on Friday to prepare to welcome their families home.

"It seems that this day has finally come," said Fukie Chimura, who was abducted with her fiance, Yasushi, in 1978 and whose daughter, 22, and son, 20, remain in the North. "I hope we will be reunited."

Japan, which ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910 until its World War II defeat in 1945, has never had formal ties with the North, and distrust between the two Asian neighbors runs deep.

But Koizumi is betting that Kim, hard-pressed to feed his impoverished nation and supply one of the world's largest standing armies, may be willing to make concessions to gain access to Japanese aid.

Tokyo announced in October 2000 that it was donating 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea through the United Nations, but it has not sent food aid since because of the nuclear and abductions issues. Japan did, however, send medical supplies for a recent deadly train explosion near North Korea's border with China.

Japanese media have reported that Koizumi is prepared to offer 250,000 tons of rice to the North and resume efforts to forge diplomatic relations as early as next month if talks on the abductees' families go well.

Some analysts believe another motive for the reclusive Kim, who has held only one other summit this year, with China's President Hu Jintao in Beijing, may be to undermine multilateral talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for security assurances and energy aid.

The so-called "six-nation talks" -- which also include the United States, China, Russia and South Korea -- are particularly important to Washington, which has refused to deal with North Korea one-on-one.

Koizumi promised he would do nothing to compromise those negotiations.

Tokyo is wary of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, because virtually all of Japan is within range of the North's missiles. However, breaking the deadlock over the abductions issue is of primary importance to the Japanese public.

"The abduction problem is Japan's problem. But the nuclear one is what the international community is most focused on, and it's important to cooperate with the rest of the world," Koizumi told reporters on the eve of his departure.

"I will clearly explain Japan's position, my position to Chairman Kim Jong Il to address to the international community's concerns," he said.

Retrieving the family members would be a huge triumph for Koizumi, whose support has been wobbling amid a broadening scandal over the failure of dozens of leading politicians, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, to pay into the national pension system. Just hours before announcing the summit, Koizumi acknowledged he, too, had missed some payments, albeit before they were made mandatory.

Another obstacle could be that North Carolina native Charles Jenkins, the husband of abductee Hitomi Soga, is an accused U.S. Army deserter who defected to the North in 1965 and reportedly has balked at coming to Japan with their two daughters for fear of being extradited to the United States to face a court-martial.

"To be honest, I am worried and concerned," Hitomi Soga, Jenkins' wife, said before Koizumi's departure. "But I pray this summit will bring a new start for my family, all four of us, in Japan."

Tokyo has asked Washington to give him special consideration, and perhaps a pardon, but U.S. officials have provided no such guarantees.

"I'm sympathetic from a human point of view," U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr. told reporters. "But he's classified as a deserter."

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