Families of those believed to have been abducted to North Korea welcomed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s plan to visit the Stalinist state next month as an opportunity to make some headway on the thorny issue.

But some families also expressed doubts over whether any real progress will be made.

Shigeru Yokota, whose daughter, Megumi, was allegedly abducted to North Korea from the Sea of Japan coast in 1977, said he hopes North Korea is prepared to settle the abduction issue.

“That Prime Minister Koizumi is visiting North Korea means that he will not just go there to negotiate bilateral relations but also to take up the abduction issue,” he said. “If North Korea does not take a step here, the abduction case will never be solved.

“I hope the North is making a political decision.”

Megumi Yokota is among about 11 Japanese whom Tokyo suspects were abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s; their fate has been a major stumbling block in efforts to establish diplomatic ties.

Yuko Hamamoto, father of Fukie Hamamoto, another of the missing, also expressed hope that the summit between Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will lead to the resolution of the abduction issue.

Said Hamamoto: “When I met with the prime minister in April, he said, ‘No normalization of diplomatic ties without the solution of the abduction issue.’ Former Prime Ministers Keizo Obuchi and Yoshiro Mori both called the issue the ‘top priority for national politics.’ So I hope Mr. Koizumi will spell it all out.”

Kayoko Arimoto, whose daughter, Keiko, was also allegedly abducted to North Korea, expressed surprise upon hearing of the increasingly unpopular prime minister’s trip. She said she hopes Koizumi will try to negotiate the return of her daughter.

“I was thinking there would be some kind of talks by the end of September, but it never occurred to me that the prime minister would make a visit to North Korea,” she said. “But if the prime minister goes, I believe he will be sure to talk about everything that should be talked about. I want him to negotiate in earnest to bring my daughter home.”

Keiko Arimoto was allegedly abducted from Europe in 1983. Her case came to light on March 16 this year, when Megumi Yao, the former wife of one of nine Japanese who hijacked a Japan Airlines jet to North Korea in 1970, admitted she had been involved in Keiko’s abduction.

Kazuo Okudo, whose daughter, Yukiko, is another alleged abductee, said he is pleased the leaders are planning to hold high-level talks.

“I’ve long argued that no solution is likely (on the issue) unless the top officials hold talks, just like when Japan and China established diplomatic ties (in 1972),” he said. “Now that it’s finally coming true, I’m glad and I welcome it.”

But a number of families were skeptical of any progress being made in the talks.

“I can’t get my hopes up too high after getting disappointed with past negotiations over normalizing bilateral ties,” said Teruaki Masumoto, whose sister, Rumiko, went missing in 1978 and is presumed to be in North Korea. “One-third of my feelings consists of hopes, while the remainder is fear that Koizumi will be a pawn (of North Korea).”

And officials of security investigation authorities greeted the news with a mixture of hope laced with caution.

A 1990 trip to Pyongyang by the late Shin Kanemaru, then deputy president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, paved the way for the release of Japanese fishermen who had been detained for years by North Korea.

“Visits to North Korea by powerful Japanese lawmakers have often led to a breakthrough in bilateral disputes,” an official said before cautioning against piling too many expectations on the Koizumi trip. “(North Korea) has often in the past simply run out on agreements.”

Korean residents happy

OSAKA — Korean residents in Osaka Prefecture, which make up one-quarter of all Korean residents in Japan, welcomed Friday’s news that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will visit Pyongyang on Sept. 17 for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

“Relations with Japan have been the most difficult” for North Korea, said Jong Gap Su, who has hosted the One Korea Festival in Japan to encourage unification of the divided peninsula.

He called the news “abrupt,” but said, “I hope the two leaders will steer relations in a good direction that will contribute to peace and stability in Asia.”

Cheers were heard among officials at the Osaka prefectural office of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), a pro-Pyongyang body that represents North Korean interests in this country.

“I’m struck with joy. This is wonderful,” said Kim Jong Ui, a Chongryun official. “I hope the leaders will also talk about improving the rights of Korean residents in Japan.”

World Boxing Council super flyweight champion Masamori Tokuyama, a pro-Pyongyang Korean resident of Japan, expressed hope for the upcoming meeting between the leaders.

“Although I don’t know much about politics, I really hope (Koizumi) will see the country firsthand, because information in Japan about things in North Korea has not necessarily been good so far,” he said.

“With his visit as a launching pad, Japan-North Korea relations will increasingly become friendly,” said Tokuyama, 27, whose Korean name is Hong Chang Su.

Koizumi’s planned one-day visit to Pyongyang would be the first such visit to North Korea by a Japanese prime minister.

Tokuyama, whose birthday falls on Sept. 17, recently made his fifth successful defense of the title he won two years ago.

Korean atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima also hailed the news.

“I clapped my hands on hearing the news,” said Li Sil Gun, leader of a survivors’ group.

“Japan has strongly disliked North Korea until now. But I don’t think Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit will resolve all the problems,” Li said, adding that he is happy because Koizumi’s visit probably means that Japan wants to have a good relationship with North Korea.

“I hope issues concerning A-bomb survivors in North Korea will also make progress,” he said.

Recent Japan-North Korea interaction

The following is a chronology of major events in Japan-North Korea relations over the past few years:

Dec. 3, 1999 — North Korea’s ruling Workers Party of Korea and a delegation of Japanese lawmakers call for an early resumption of talks between the two countries on establishing diplomatic ties.

Dec. 14, 1999 — Japan announces it will unfreeze food aid to North Korea, removing the last of a series of sanctions imposed after North Korea fired a rocket over Japan in August 1998.

Dec. 21, 1999 — The Red Cross societies of Japan and North Korea agree in Beijing to conduct a serious investigation into “missing Japanese nationals,” a reference to people Tokyo believes were kidnapped and brought to North Korea decades ago.

April 5-7, 2000 — Japan and North Korea hold negotiations in Pyongyang, marking a landmark resumption of talks that collapsed in 1992.

June 13-15, 2000 — South Korean President Kim Dae Jung meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang for the first-ever summit.

July 26, 2000 — Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun hold the first-ever foreign ministerial meeting between the two countries in Bangkok.

Aug. 22-24, 2000 — Japan and North Korea hold a second round of talks on establishing diplomatic ties in Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture.

Oct. 6, 2000 — Japan announces it will send 500,000 tons of rice as food aid to North Korea.

Oct. 30-31, 2000 — Japan and North Korea hold a new round of talks on establishing diplomatic ties.

May 1, 2001 — Japanese immigration temporarily detains a man believed to be the elder son of Kim Jong Il.

Dec. 17, 2001 — North Korea’s Red Cross Society declares it has suspended its efforts to search for missing Japanese citizens.

Dec. 22, 2001 — An unidentified ship, believed to be North Korean, sinks in the East China Sea after a shootout with Japanese patrol boats.

March 11, 2002 — The Metropolitan Police Department sets up headquarters to investigate the case of Keiko Arimoto, a Japanese woman who disappeared in Europe in 1983, suspecting North Korean agents abducted her.

March 22, 2002 — North Korea’s Red Cross Society says it is prepared to resume talks with the Japanese Red Cross on the fate of missing Japanese nationals.

April 29-30, 2002 — Talks between Japanese and North Korean Red Cross delegations on humanitarian issues start in Beijing.

July 31, 2002 — Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun meet in Brunei.

Aug. 18-19, 2002 — Japanese and North Korean Red Cross societies hold talks in Pyongyang.

Aug. 25-26, 2002 — Japan and North Korea hold high-level talks in Pyongyang to pave the way for negotiations on establishing diplomatic ties.

Aug. 30, 2002 — Japan announces Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will visit North Korea on Sept. 17 for talks with Kim Jong Il.

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