Tokyo expressed displeasure Tuesday with Pyongyang’s announcement that Japanese women living with their North Korean husbands in the reclusive state “canceled” applications to visit their homeland.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Kanezo Muraoka described as regrettable the announcement that women who were to make their first visit home in more than three decades voluntarily withdrew from the program.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadaaki Numata said the announcement by North Korea has made it difficult for the Japanese government to move forward in improving relations with North Korea. He said the extension of food aid to North Korea and the early resumption of talks on normalizing ties have become difficult because of the announcement.

Earlier in the day, the state-run Korean Central Broadcasting Station quoted a spokesman from the Red Cross Society of North Korea as saying the women had canceled their applications. The report said the decision stemmed from Japan’s acts against humanity, its obstructing what would be the third homecoming visit and its excluding women who have lost their Japanese nationality from joining the program.

It also said Japan’s resistance to allow home visits by women who have lost their Japanese citizenship is not humanitarian. It went on to call Japanese news coverage of women who visited in January “rude.”

“Angered by such indiscreet behavior (Japanese women) have canceled their requests … and are strongly urging the Japanese side to clarify its position on the problems,” the spokesman was quoted as saying. Japan refused to accept three women in January due to concerns over their nationality.

It is the second time in five days that the two governments have pointed fingers at each other. On Friday, Pyongyang renewed its denial that its agents abducted 10 Japanese between 1977 and 1980. Tokyo immediately and strongly criticized the denial, and on Monday the government reminded North Korea that it will not resume diplomatic normalization talks or provide rice aid unless Pyongyang sheds light on the fate of Japanese thought to have been abducted by North Korean agents.

Muraoka said the government has not obtained detailed information about the latest announcement. “It is regrettable because Japan has promoted the homecoming program from a humanitarian viewpoint,” he said. “The government has also dealt in a constructive manner with matters involving those who have lost their Japanese nationality.”

Fifteen women made their first homecoming to Japan for a week in November, followed by a second group of 12 from late January to early February. A total of 1,831 Japanese women moved to North Korea with their Korean husbands under a Red Cross repatriation program between 1959 and 1984, according to the Japanese government.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said he received the North Korean report immediately. He told reporters that he regrets Pyongyang’s decision not to allow home visits by the women.

Haruki Wada, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said North Korea remains committed to the normalization talks, and therefore the Japanese government, as well as citizens and the press, should not overreact to the report.

He noted that Japanese women who were loyal to the current regime were selected in the first two visits and said the North Korean economic situation is so bad now that Pyongyang does not want to send even loyal women.

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