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A group of 16 Japanese women married to North Koreans arrived at Narita Airport on Tuesday for the third homecoming trip arranged between the two countries.

The women arrived via Beijing and are to stay in Japan until Monday. During their trip, which was organized by the Red Cross societies of the two nations, the women will meet relatives in Japan and visit family graves.

The homecoming comes on the heels of the resumption in April of bilateral normalization talks following a seven-year lull. The visits, which took place in 1997 and early 1998, were suspended after North Korea launched what Japan maintains was a missile over its airspace in August 1998.

Upon arrival at the airport, Kazuko Oikawa, 63, expressed happiness that she was able to come back to her native country.

“I am truly happy, because I never thought I would be able to meet (my family) again,” she said.

Emi Horikoshi, 65, said her heart was full of nostalgia and happiness. She said she hopes the two nations will be able to normalize ties so she can take her children and grandchildren to Japan.

Tokyo and Pyongyang, which held talks in Tokyo last month, are expected to hold another round of normalization discussions as early as October. Some observers said the resumption of efforts on the humanitarian front, such as the homecomings, will be a positive step toward helping thaw bilateral ties.

The 16 women on the current trip range in age from 59 to 76. They left Japan with their North Korean spouses as part of a repatriation program between 1959 and 1984.

According to the Justice Ministry, 1,831 women had Japanese citizenship upon their departure to the Stalinist state.

Mori vows not to fold

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on Tuesday told relatives of Japanese nationals suspected of having been abducted by North Korean agents that Tokyo will not normalize diplomatic ties with Pyongyang until the cases are solved.

“It would be unthinkable for the government to normalize relations while ignoring the alleged abduction cases,” a Foreign Ministry official quoted Mori as saying in the meeting at his official residence.

Mori was responding to Shigeru Yokota, whose daughter Megumi disappeared at the age of 13 in 1977 from Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast, and eight others who urged the government not to shelve the issue in its normalization talks with North Korea.

“We asked the government not to establish diplomatic ties with North Korea by shelving the issue,” Yokota told reporters after the meeting. “The prime minister promised not to, and we feel a little bit better.”

The relatives also submitted to Mori the signatures of 130,000 people calling for the return of the alleged kidnap victims.

The abduction issue remains one of the major obstacles in negotiations between the two countries on establishing diplomatic relations.

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