• Kyodo

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One of four Japanese Red Army Faction fugitives who received political asylum in North Korea after hijacking a Japan Airlines jetliner in 1970 dismissed speculation Tuesday that Pyongyang may expel them from the country.

It is thought that Pyongyang may consider the U.S. expulsion request amid signs of improving relations between the two countries.

In a telephone conversation with Japanese reporters visiting North Korea, Shiro Akagi, 52, said Pyongyang has never spoken to the fugitives about deporting them, adding that they are being treated the same as before.

He said that while the fugitives hope to return to Japan someday, they would never consent to being forcibly sent back.

The members are expanding their businesses, Akagi said, adding that he is involved in exporting carrots and importing home appliances.

Meanwhile, the head of a Japanese group who has supported the fugitives and their families said Tuesday that they will start preparing to bring their wives and children back to Japan soon.

But the group said the four fugitives will remain in North Korea for the time being.

It is believed the U.S. and North Korea decided to raise the issue during talks between top North Korean officials and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, currently on a two-day visit to Pyongyang.

The U.S. reportedly said it will not remove North Korea from a list of states that sponsor terrorism unless the North expels the hijackers.

However, sources said North Korea rejected the U.S. proposal, saying the decision to accept the hijackers was made by the late Pyongyang leader Kim Il Sung.

Nine Japanese Red Army Faction members hijacked a JAL Boeing 727 on March 31, 1970, and forced it to land in the North Korean capital.

Three of the nine have since died and two have been arrested by Japanese police.

The remaining four, who are on an international wanted list, are believed to be still living in the North with their families.

Akagi said North Korea respects a statement issued by its human rights protection association in March 1999 that a sovereign state has the right to accept those seeking political asylum.

The Red Army Faction was a radical student group when it was formed in 1969.

It gained international notoriety through a series of violent acts in the 1970s in Japan and abroad.

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