North Korea has asked Japan for 4 billion yen in compensation for victims of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, government sources said Wednesday.

Pyongyang’s request matches the amount Tokyo paid in support of atomic bomb victims in South Korea — North Korea’s longtime rival — through the South Korean Red Cross Society in the early 1990s.

The sources said that North Korea has also asked Japan to build a hospital to treat survivors of the two bombings, but it was not known if this forms part of the 4 billion yen requested or in addition to it.

The requests from the reclusive communist state were apparently made when a Japanese government fact-finding mission visited the country in mid-March and met with atomic bomb victims, medical workers and North Korean health officials.

The sources said the requests were made “indirectly,” suggesting they came from the nation’s atomic bomb victims, rather than its government.

But regardless of their source, Japanese officials believe the pleas for assistance strongly reflect Pyongyang policy.

The fact-finding mission, the first of its kind to be sent to North Korea, was led by Shigekazu Sato, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau. It included foreign ministry and health ministry officials and two doctors.

The mission found that 1,353 survivors of the bombings had returned to North Korea after World War II, of which 928 were still alive as of late last year. The average age of the survivors is 69, according to mission members who spoke at a news conference in Beijing on their way back to Tokyo.

The team said that the victims demanded compensation from Japan for their suffering, but the team did not elaborate on the specifics of their demands. They added that hospitals and clinics in North Korea are poorly equipped, even lacking heaters, due to the country’s prolonged economic crisis.

According to the sources, Tokyo will consider aid for the North Koreans from a humanitarian viewpoint, based on a report to be compiled soon by the fact-finding team, but will not agree to the 4 billion yen asked for as long as efforts to normalize diplomatic ties remain stalled.

The government will instead consider sending medical supplies — a relatively small amount of aid.

There are deep concerns within Tokyo that, unlike its South Korean counterpart, the North Korean Red Cross — a likely conduit for any Japanese financial aid for the atomic bomb victims — would not use the money properly.

After a hiatus of more than seven years, Japan and North Korea resumed normalization negotiations in April 2000, holding the ninth round of negotiations in Pyongyang. This was followed by negotiations in Tokyo in August and talks in Beijing at the end of October. But this last round ended with no date set for future talks.

The two sides remain sharply divided over the disappearance in the 1970s and 1980s of at least 10 Japanese who Tokyo claims were abducted by North Korean agents, and over Pyongyang’s demand for compensation for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

During that period, it is believed more than 2 million Koreans were brought to Japan as forced laborers.

About 100,000 Koreans are believed to have been exposed to radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the U.S. atomic bombings, about half of whom are believed to have died. Some 2,200 people are recognized as atomic bomb victims in South Korea.

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