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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s stated intention to visit Pyongyang is the result of a year of assessment by Tokyo of whether North Korea is serious about improving bilateral ties.

Since the attack in the United States on Sept. 11 and President George W. Bush’s naming in January of North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” Pyongyang has gradually softened its stance, as evidenced by the release in February of a Japanese journalist who had been detained in North Korea on spying charges.

Pyongyang then proposed in March the resumption of its search for “missing persons.” Talks were held in April between the Red Cross societies of the two nations.

After a series of discreet negotiations, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and her North Korean counterpart, Paek Nam Sun, met in July on the sidelines of a regional security forum. That meeting was followed by another Red Cross society meeting and high-level governmental talks earlier this month.

“We were testing North Korea’s intentions on those occasions,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official who declined to be named. “After the latest (governmental talks), the prime minister finally decided that he would go himself to attempt a breakthrough.”

The official conceded that it is possible Koizumi’s visit would not produce results.

“Of course, there is that risk, but we have determined that there is a chance now,” the official said. “We have had poor relations (with North Korea) for 50 years, why should we sit around and wait for another 50 years without solving any problems?

“The prime minister feels that it is his responsibility to seize this moment,” the official said.

During the Red Cross and governmental talks, Pyongyang denied taking part in the abduction of 11 Japanese citizens who Tokyo claims were taken by North Korean agents in 1970s and 1980s.

However, North Korea did compromise by agreeing to deal “comprehensively” with the abduction issue and its demand that Japan apologize and compensate for its past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

In the last normalization talks held two years ago, Pyongyang did not even acknowledge an abduction issue.

As another sign of progress, in response to Koizumi’s message that Japan was ready to seriously address unresolved issues between the two countries, National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il said the message was “encouraging” and expressed gratitude to Koizumi. It was the first such exchange of messages between the two leaders.

Hajime Izumi, a professor of international relations at the University of Shizuoka and an expert on Korean issues, said Pyongyang’s acceptance of Koizumi’s visit means that Kim has indeed made a commitment to deal seriously with Japan and eventually yield on the abduction issue.

“In a country like North Korea, a decision by the leader is everything,” Izumi said. “The visit will probably be an opportunity to lay a sound foundation for solving the abduction issue and agreeing to resume normalization talks.”

Japanese officials have said that Japan will not resume normalization talks without making progress on the abduction issue. But once that issue is solved, Japan is in a position to offer economic assistance as an alternative for the compensation demanded by North Korea.

North Korea, in dire economic straits, earnestly wants foreign aid. Pyongyang is also trying hard to improve ties with the U.S. in fear of Bush’s hardline stance.

“By improving ties with Japan, North Korea wants to make progress in its relations with the U.S.,” Izumi said.

“Japan, on the other hand, can use this opportunity to pressure Pyongyang on security issues, such as missile and nuclear weapons — the biggest concern of the U.S.”

The Foreign Ministry official said that the U.S. will definitely send Bush’s special envoy James Kelly to Pyongyang in September as Japan has made the latest move.

“We’re making these moves in close coordination with the U.S. and South Korea,” the official said. “If Japan-North Korea talks move, the North-South (Koreas) talks and Pyongyang-Washington talks will also move.”

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