Japan and China have begun final negotiations for the handover of a 64-year-old Japanese woman who was taken into custody by Chinese authorities after fleeing North Korea in November, government sources said Tuesday.

The woman is married to a North Korean man who has reportedly been arrested by North Korean authorities, according to the sources.

It would be the first time that Japan has placed under its protection an asylum seeker from North Korea whose case has been made public. The woman’s plight has been widely reported by the Japanese media in recent weeks.

On Monday, Mitoji Yabunaka, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, told the House of Representative Budget Committee that Japan has “taken into protective custody” dozens of Japanese spouses of Koreans and former Korean residents of Japan who had fled North Korea.

The government has so far kept such information secret out of consideration for relations between China and North Korea, according to Foreign Ministry officials.

Yabunaka left for Beijing later Tuesday to discuss the woman’s return with Fu Ying, director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Asian Affairs Department, the officials said, adding that the pair will also address other issues, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Before returning to Japan on Thursday, Yabunaka will pay a courtesy call on Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, they said.

The Japanese woman, who is a native of eastern Japan, went to North Korea in 1959 along with her husband, a North Korean resident of Japan.

Under a so-called repatriation program, some 93,000 people, including Japanese spouses and children, went to North Korea between 1959 and 1984.

The woman fled to China from North Korea in November and sought refuge in Japan via her supporters.

But a so-called mediating organization demanded a huge sum in cash as a condition for handing over the woman, and the Japanese government refused to negotiate with them, according to other sources.

The woman and members of the organization were then taken into custody by security authorities in Jilin. She is believed to have been questioned on how she managed to get out of North Korea.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi told the Lower House committee Monday that Japanese spouses who have escaped from North Korea must be treated the same way as Japanese nationals overseas requiring protection. Japan has been seeking cooperation from China on the matter, she said.

But as there is an accord between China and North Korea to return North Koreans who escape to China, the Japanese government intends to deal with the issue carefully, the government sources said.

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