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Pyongyang earlier this week refused to allow the families of the five surviving Japanese abductees now in Japan to leave North Korea and be reunited with them in a third country, as requested by Tokyo, sources said Friday.

In normalization talks held Tuesday and Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, Japan asked the North Korean delegation to indicate when the families, who include the abductees’ children born in North Korea and the American husband of one of the returnees, will be allowed to visit Japan, according to Japanese officials.

But Pyongyang maintained a hard line, criticizing Tokyo for keeping the five returnees in Japan and saying it had broken an agreement to ensure that the freed abductees would return to North Korea after about two weeks.

In the course of these exchanges, the sources said Japan requested that the families be allowed to leave North Korea and be reunited with the abductees in a third country, possibly China, if allowing them to immediately travel to Japan is impossible.

Because North Korea will not let the children leave, the abductees cannot freely express whether they would like to remain in Japan with their families, Japan has argued, but to no avail.

Pyongyang also refused to allow the five returnees to contact their families in North Korea by phone, insisting the five must return to the reclusive state.

The five returned to Japan on Oct. 15 for the first time since being abducted in 1978. Japan, in accordance with the wishes of the abductees’ relatives in Japan, has decided to keep the returnees here, although the abductees themselves have said they want to return to North Korea and talk with their children about their future plans.

The five, two couples and a woman, whose American husband remains in North Korea and is wanted for desertion by the U.S. military, have seven children between them.

Japan also wants the daughter of another abductee, Megumi Yokota, whom North Korea claims has died, to visit Japan, where she has grandparents.

‘Not a precondition’

Getting North Korea to allow the families of the five Japanese abductees now back in Japan to leave so they can reunite with the returnees is “not a precondition” for resuming normalization talks, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said Friday, contradicting remarks Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe made the previous day.

Kawaguchi said Japan is considering various ways to deal with the sensitive issue and will use every possible means to bring about a trip to Japan by the abductees’ family members in North Korea before the next round of normalization talks are held.

“At the moment, we cannot say when we will hold the next round of talks,” Kawaguchi told a news conference. “We will work on the (visit) of the family members through every possible avenue . . . but we are not making this a condition.”

“When to hold the next talks will be determined in the course of various events, so we have not set a deadline for deciding.”

North Korea has proposed holding the next round of talks in late November, but Japan has yet to respond to the idea.

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