The government on Friday officially announced plans to send 500,000 tons of rice as additional food aid to North Korea.

The plan, endorsed by Cabinet ministers and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s decision-making executive council in the morning, was formally announced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa in the afternoon.

“I decided to offer substantial assistance based on my judgment that now is the crucial time (for North Korea),” Foreign Minister Yohei Kono told a news conference, citing a dramatic change in the situation on the Korean Peninsula after the historic North-South summit meeting in June.

“From a humanitarian standpoint, I decided that it is important to provide 500,000 tons at this time and before a food shortage (in the North) is expected after the turn of the year,” Kono said.

The rice aid far exceeds the 195,000 tons of food assistance the U.N. World Food Program asked the international community last month to send to North Korea in the four-month period from September.

The government expects more requests will come after the end of the year. It is also hoped that such large-scale aid will add impetus to the next round of Japan-North Korea normalization talks, which are expected to be held in a third country later this month.

The New Conservative Party, which along with New Komeito makes up the LDP-led ruling coalition, had earlier expressed concern over the decision, pointing to the as yet unresolved abductions of Japanese, allegedly by North Korean agents.

During Friday’s informal Cabinet meeting, Construction Minister Chikage Ogi, who heads the NCP, questioned why the government should provide the rice aid when the abductions remain unsolved.

She also questioned the massive scale of rice being provided. However, persuaded by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to respect the decision by the foreign minister to offer the aid, she and other party leaders finally accepted the plan, Kono said.

Nakagawa told reporters in the afternoon that the kidnapping issue must be resolved “at any cost” but indicated he is not certain whether the rice aid will help bring a breakthrough in the thorniest issue between the two countries.

“The government’s position that the (abduction) issue must be resolved through the diplomatic normalization process has not changed at all,” he said, calling for public understanding of the decision.

Asked who will take responsibility in the event the aid brings no progress on the issue, he said: “I can only say that the government will resolve the matter at any cost in a series of various (diplomatic) developments.”

Kin of missing hit aid

Some 40 people, including relatives of Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents, staged a sit-in Friday in front of the Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters to protest the approval by an LDP panel of rice aid being provided to North Korea.

The protesters included Shigeru Yokota, 67, and his wife, Sakie, 64, whose daughter, Megumi, was 13 when she disappeared in 1977 from Niigata Prefecture. Her parents believe she was abducted to North Korea.

“Providing food would result in no progress being made on the abduction issue. (North Korea) has shown no sincerity,” Yokota said. “I am not satisfied with the use of as much as 100 billion yen in taxpayers’ money, which wouldn’t lead to the rescue of our people.

“I want an explanation to the people on the real intention behind the food aid,” he said.

Supporters of the relatives of the missing said that Thursday was Megumi’s 36th birthday. They called on LDP members to object to the rice aid.

Japan maintains that at least 10 of its citizens were abducted by North Korea in seven cases in the 1970s and 1980s. Pyongyang denies the allegations, but has promised to search for the Japanese as “missing persons.”

The issue remains a major obstacle to efforts to normalize bilateral ties.

China loans approved

The Cabinet on Friday officially approved 17.2 billion yen in low-interest yen loans to China, which had been delayed due to China’s marine research and naval activities in waters around Japan.

The projects to be covered by the loans will include the 14.1 billion yen construction of an urban railway in Beijing and a 3.1 billion yen expansion of an airport in Xian.

The loans are part of Japan’s aid program to countries affected by the Asian economic crisis that swept the region in the late 1990s. The Foreign Ministry in August decided on its plan to provide the loans, but a final Cabinet decision had been put off amid protests from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party over the Chinese activities.

Since the two countries later agreed on advance notice of such activities, Japan made the decision Friday prior to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit to Japan, which begins Thursday.

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