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Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s remarks Friday that a secret proposal was made to North Korea in 1997 over the alleged kidnapping of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang have baffled the Foreign Ministry and drawn criticism both from the opposition camp and leading members of the ruling coalition.

Naoto Kan, secretary general of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, denounced the remarks Mori made during his talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Seoul.

“This is a very imprudent act. Making comments like that could endanger Japan’s national interests,” Kan told reporters. “Maybe the prime minister is impatient, being driven by a desire to gain fame” by swiftly resolving the kidnapping issue, he said.

Mori told Blair that he suggested to North Korea in 1997 that Pyongyang could return the Japanese, whom Tokyo says were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, by pretending that the “missing” were found in cities in a third country, such as Beijing and Bangkok.

Mori later told reporters that the proposal was in fact presented by his Liberal Democratic Party colleague Masaaki Nakayama when Mori, then chairman of the ruling LDP’s Executive Council, visited North Korea as head of a ruling coalition mission that also comprised members of the Social Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake.

“It’s a story of the past. I just explained the details” to Blair, Mori said. He added that Blair had asked for advice on dealing with North Korea following Britain’s decision to pursue diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. He said he merely mentioned the “third country” plan as an example of what had occurred. Mori said North Korea has not responded to the proposal and added that, as prime minister, he no longer considers the third-country plan viable.

On Saturday in Muroran, Hokkaido, DPJ chief Yukio Hatoyama said: “I can’t understand how (the prime minister) can make such a statement.

“I don’t think (North Korea) will engage in talks with a person who would divulge the secrets of bilateral negotiations to the leader of a third country.”

Hatoyama went on to say that Mori’s responsibility is grave in that he has made solving the kidnapping problem more difficult than ever. The kidnapping issue is one of the biggest obstacles to improved Tokyo-Pyongyang ties.

Relatives of the missing Japanese and many lawmakers remain opposed to providing large-scale food aid to North Korea until the issue is resolved. North Korea continues to flatly deny the kidnapping allegation but says it will cooperate in the search for “missing” Japanese.

Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo said the third-country proposal was made either by individual lawmakers or a political party and that the government was not involved.

One official admitted, however, that the idea has been informally discussed as a “realistic option” because “it would be unthinkable for North Korea, intent on saving face, to apologize and admit to the kidnappings.”

In a news conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa did not rule out that the plan may be used as a tactical option in the ongoing normalization talks, which are to resume Oct. 30. A top-ranking ministry official said Mori’s remarks are “a reflection of (the prime minister’s) desire to settle the issue in any way.”

But another official noted that it would become difficult for Japan to use the option “now that the prime minister has referred to it.”

Kazuhisa Ogawa, a defense affairs analyst, said it is “extremely awkward” from a diplomatic viewpoint for the prime minister to disclose such a proposal at this point.

Ogawa said it is not uncommon to make such proposals in diplomatic negotiations, “but they should be made public only in a memoir or after the death (of the person who made the offer),” he said.

Citing Mori’s record of gaffes since he became prime minister in April, Ogawa said that making such remarks, even though North Korea has not yet taken any action in response to the proposal, is tantamount to admitting to the world that the quality of Japanese politicians is far below international standards.

While government officials tried to play down the impact of what appears to be Mori’s latest blunder, criticism of the prime minister has surfaced even within the ruling camp.

Takenori Kanzaki, chief of New Komeito — the LDP’s current key coalition partner — said Saturday that the reported proposal “does not appear to be appropriate.”

“I expect (the prime minister) to explain his real intentions (behind the remarks),” Kanzaki told reporters. Former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato also lashed out against what he described as the lax information management of the Mori Cabinet.

Kato said that while it is not unusual for a prime minister to confidentially explain the process of diplomatic negotiations to the leader of a third country in which he has personal trust, the problem is that what should have remained confidential was easily released to the press.

“The judgment and information management of Mr. Mori’s diplomatic team is being questioned. . . . In light of the importance of improving ties with North Korea, this is a grave mistake,” Kato said.

Meanwhile, a nationwide group supporting the relatives of the missing Japanese released a statement Saturday that denounces the reported proposal to North Korea as a “breach of trust against the nation and its people.”

The group also blasted Mori’s carelessness in disclosing the proposal to Blair. The statement says that a solution based on the proposal will no longer be possible now that the idea has been divulged to the leader of a third country — even if North Korea had considered it.

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