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A key Liberal Democratic Party panel approved a plan Wednesday to send 500,000 tons of rice as food aid to North Korea, effectively paving the way for an aid program the government hopes will add impetus to normalization talks.

The plan was endorsed at a meeting of the LDP’s Foreign Affairs Division in the afternoon and now awaits approval by two other LDP panels, which is expected on Friday.

Later in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa said the government hopes the aid will help promote normalization talks with North Korea.

The announcement of the aid will “clarify the government’s intention (to help the North),” he said, adding that it will also enhance a recent series of positive developments concerning the Korean Peninsula.

Under the aid program, Japan will contribute funds to the U.N. World Food Program to purchase the rice from Japan’s own stockpile.

While 500,000 tons of rice is worth 17.5 billion yen at international prices, Japan is expected to provide more than 100 billion yen so that the WFP can buy more expensive Japanese-grown rice. The total cost of the aid is estimated at 120 billion yen because Tokyo will also shoulder shipping costs inside Japan.

Nakagawa said the funds for the aid will be included in an extra budget to be submitted to the Diet in November.

The rice shipments are expected to begin this year and run through summer.

In Wednesday’s meeting, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said Japan should send the rice not only as humanitarian assistance but also to help bring North Korea into the international fold, according to the official.

“We want to provide the assistance to back various changes since June” when leaders of the two Koreas met in a landmark summit, Kono was quoted as saying.

At least one panel member criticized the plan.

Katsuei Hirasawa, a member of the House of Representatives, told reporters after the meeting that progress should first be made in resolving the issue of the alleged kidnappings of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I believe that history will prove that this decision was not a plus for Japan,” he said.

Asked how the aid will affect the abduction issue, Nakagawa told the afternoon news conference that the issue remains a “top priority for our government,” adding that persistent negotiations through bilateral normalization talks are crucial to resolving the problem.

Members of the New Conservative Party, one of the LDP’s coalition partners, expressed opposition to the plan in a party meeting in the afternoon.

“I don’t think it will be a plus for the normalization talks,” Chikage Ogi, leader of the party, was quoted as saying.

The proposed rice aid exceeds the 195,000 tons of food assistance the WFP asked the international community to send to North Korea to feed its people for a four-month period from September.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the WFP estimates that a total of 870,000 tons of rice will be needed to cover North Korea’s needs through next year.

The last time Japan decided on food assistance to North Korea was in March, shortly before resuming negotiations on diplomatic relations with North Korea for the first time since 1992.

At that time, Japan decided to give 100,000 tons of rice to North Korea. The shipments were made between May and August.

Japan and North Korea are expected to hold a third round of talks on normalizing diplomatic ties later this month in a third country.

Families disappointed

The families of Japanese nationals allegedly abducted by North Korean agents expressed disappointment Wednesday that Japan is moving toward sending 500,000 tons of rice as food aid to the North.

“The government has abandoned us,” said Teruaki Masumoto, whose elder sister, Rumiko, disappeared near the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture in 1978. She was 24.

Masumoto was speaking at a news conference held by families of four of the 10 people believed to have been abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. They met with Foreign Minister Yohei Kono earlier in the day to reiterate their opposition toward the rice aid.

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