Japan playing hardball with North Korea on aid

The government may delay its next shipment of food aid pledged to North Korea in the wake of a stalemate in bilateral talks over the abduction issue, government officials said Wednesday.

The government may not deliver the 125,000 tons of food aid in the latter part of fiscal 2004 if Pyongyang fails in the next round of talks to produce concrete findings from its reinvestigation into the fate of 10 Japanese whom Tokyo believes were abducted to North Korea, the officials said.

The move comes after Japan and North Korea ended two days of working-level talks Sunday without a breakthrough. During the talks, the North failed to provide new information on the current status of the 10 Japanese.

Japan called the results inadequate and proposed that the next talks be held in October or at the latest by mid-November. The North Korean side promised to consider the proposed schedule.

The food aid is part of 250,000 tons of aid promised by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during their May 22 summit in Pyongyang.

Of that amount, Japan decided in August to provide 125,000 tons of food and $7 million worth of medical supplies through international agencies beginning in October.

The second batch of food aid was scheduled to be sent in the latter part of fiscal 2004.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, in a morning news conference, downplayed the issue, saying: “The delay has not been decided yet. The priority (now) is to undertake various negotiations.” But several government sources said it is possible to halt the food aid to North Korea depending on Pyongyang’s stance.