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Staff writer

North Korea will not immediately agree to allow free passage of Japanese women there to Japan, but dialogue between the two countries will not break down, a Japanese expert on Korean affairs says.

North Korea will not break off bilateral talks because the communist country sees the establishment of ties with Japan as a key to rebuilding its economy, according to Masao Okonogi, a professor at Keio University. “In the short term, North Korea is seeking to strengthen the leadership of Kim Jong Il, who is expected to become state president in October or November, and is seeking food aid from Japan (by agreeing on home visits and resumption of normalization talks). Therefore, (drastic) concession of agreeing on the principle of free passage is unnecessary,” Okonogi said in an interview.

Japan and North Korea agreed late last month to reopen talks on normalization and on visits by Japanese wives in North Korea to Japan as soon as possible. A dozen Japanese women in North Korea are expected to be allowed to visit Japan later this month.

Tokyo has been asking Pyongyang to allow return visits by all Japanese wives there who wish to do so, and has been demanding the establishment of free passage. Tokyo is likely to extend food assistance to famine-threatened North Korea through international organizations, once the first round of the home visits is realized.

The Red Cross societies of the two countries, as well as government officials, will meet Sept. 6 in Beijing to discuss details of the first round of the home visits. Tokyo again will likely call for the establishment of free passage at the Beijing meeting.

It is estimated that more than 1,800 Japanese women accompanied their Korean husbands to the reclusive communist country after a repatriation agreement was concluded in 1959 between the Red Cross societies of Japan and North Korea. Most of their relatives have not been heard from since then, and more than half of the wives would now be 70 years old or more, if still alive.

Okonogi said that an immediate breakthrough in the establishment of free passage will not come at an early stage because Pyongyang wants to keep it as a bargaining chip to get economic assistance from Japan.

In the long term, North Korea is seeking to improve relations with foreign countries, especially with Japan, to reconstruct its economy, according to Okonogi. “North Korea wants economic assistance from Japan, therefore, it may intend to complete all the home visits by Japanese wives in North Korea by the time the two countries resolve normalization talks,” Okonogi said.

Once diplomatic ties are established between Japan and North Korea, a substantial amount of economic assistance is expected to ensue. Kim’s leadership will be strengthened domestically if he successfully resolves normalization talks with Japan, Okonogi said. “If Kim achieves success in normalization talks with Japan, which will be followed by economic assistance from Japan, it would be an achievement that his father had not achieved. Therefore, (domestic) trust in his leadership will be increased,” Okonogi said.

Bilateral negotiations in November 1992 aimed at establishing diplomatic ties collapsed after eight rounds of discussions, partly because North Korea was offended by Japan’s demand to provide information on a Japanese woman allegedly abducted by Pyongyang for use as a North Korean agent. Okonogi said that future normalization talks will not break down easily despite difficult issues. He said that the two countries have unofficially dealt with the alleged kidnapping of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, but the issue will be further dealt with at meetings of the Red Cross societies.

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