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Staff writer

Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi showed readiness to positively respond to an international appeal to provide food assistance to North Korea, but said that domestic consensus is essential to make a decision.

“Japan needs to respond to the U.N. appeal from a humanitarian viewpoint. … But various views exist on whether to extend aid. Therefore, I need to carefully listen to such voices,” Obuchi said. The U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Food Program have issued an appeal to extend food assistance to famine-threatened North Korea.

Obuchi said he regrets that Japan’s food assistance to Pyongyang in 1995 did not produce favorable results in resolving various issues between the two countries. “However, the food situation in North Korea is severe. Therefore, (it is important) to promote cooperation (with the U.N.) from a humanitarian viewpoint,” he said.

Japan provided 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea in 1995, when Obuchi served as vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party. Japan had been reluctant to provide food aid to Pyongyang, saying that the communist state should respond positively to Japan’s humanitarian issues such as home visits by Japanese women living in North Korea and alleged abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.

Tokyo is now said to be leaning toward extending $20 million worth of food assistance to North Korea through the U.N. because Pyongyang agreed last month to allow the homecoming visits by Japanese wives of North Koreans and to resume talks for the normalization of diplomatic relations. Obuchi did not specify whether the decision will be made after the first round of the homecoming visits or whether further developments, such as a positive response over the abduction allegations, are necessary for the decision.

As for Japan’s relations with Russia, Obuchi said he will make efforts to further improve the atmosphere surrounding the two countries to help resolve the long-standing territorial row over islands off the coast of Hokkaido. “If the government only sticks to the territorial issue, progress will not be achieved. … It needs to place importance upon improving the atmosphere,” Obuchi said.

He said he hopes to meet with his Russian counterpart, Yevgeni Primakov, if they both visit New York later this month for a session of the U.N. General Assembly.

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