Japan and North Korea may hold full-fledged talks on establishing diplomatic ties around early March, following a round of preparatory talks in late January or early February, former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama predicted Wednesday. During a speech at the Japan National Press Club, Murayama, who headed a nonpartisan group of lawmakers on a mission to Pyongyang last month, also said mission participants would continue to support the two governments’ efforts to normalize ties. He added that greater economic assistance from Japan to North Korea could help normalization efforts. Murayama quoted North Korean officials as saying the country’s food shortage will be solved in the next several years when agricultural land improvements are completed. He also predicted that Pyongyang will focus next on the development of electric power and other industries. “I think Japan can play a leading role in economic exchanges with North Korea,” Murayama, a veteran Social Democratic Party lawmaker, said. During the three-day visit to Pyongyang, the 16-member group hammered out an agreement with North Korea’s ruling party calling for the resumption of normalization talks between the two governments. Following the agreement, Japan lifted sanctions against North Korea. The two governments then held exploratory talks in Beijing in late December in which a meeting to lay down the groundwork for full-fledged negotiations was scheduled for early this year . Initial talks aimed at normalization began in January 1991. But they collapsed after eight rounds in November 1992 when North Korea rejected Japan’s demand that it provide information on a Japanese woman allegedly abducted by North Korean agents. Regarding his candidacy in the next Lower House election, which must be held before October, Murayama did not comment. Speculations have lingered among political circles that the 75-year-old veteran plans to withdraw his candidacy.

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