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The six countries holding talks on North Korea’s nuclear arms program are expected to set up a working group by the end of the month to prepare for their next meeting.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Monday that during last week’s six-party talks in Beijing, the participants “agreed to hold the next round by the end of June and set up a working group within March.”

Koizumi spoke to reporters after being briefed by Mitoji Yabunaka, a senior Foreign Ministry official who headed Japan’s delegation during the Beijing talks.

North and South Korea, China, Japan, the United States and Russia ended the talks Saturday without announcing when the first working group meeting would be held.

Yabunaka also briefed senior government officials and Shinzo Abe, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, on the Beijing talks. He was expected to meet Tuesday with relatives of Japanese who had been abducted to North Korea.

Vice Foreign Minister Yukio Takeuchi said officials of the six nations will coordinate the details of the working group discussions, including the topics it will handle and whether several groups would be necessary, via diplomatic channels.

During his regularly scheduled news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda welcomed the formation of the working group and expressed hope that it would lead to more regular talks among the parties involved.

He said Japan will continue urging North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, despite North Korea’s demand that the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities be excluded.

“If it is unclear whether (North Korea) will completely limit its nuclear activities to peaceful means, (the government will) demand a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling,” Fukuda said.

Hajime Izumi, an expert on North Korea issues, said the six-party talks were significant because Japan and the U.S. clearly told Pyongyang they would not condone nuclear activities, even for peaceful purposes.

Abductee testimony

NARITA, Chiba Pref. (Kyodo) Three South Koreans abducted by North Korea decades ago arrived Monday in Japan to testify in the Diet on their experiences.

“I would like to speak at the Diet about abductees suffering in North Korea,” said Lee Jae Gun, 65, after arriving at Narita airport.

Yukio Hatoyama, who leads an abduction issue panel within the Democratic Party of Japan, met Lee and the other former abductees at the airport.

They plan to appear as unsworn witnesses Tuesday before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals.

They are to leave Japan on March 7.

The three are fishermen who were taken to North Korea after their boats were captured between 1967 and 1973.

They were forced to stay in North Korea for about 30 years until they fled to China.

Hatoyama asked them to visit Japan when he went to South Korea in early February.

The South Korean government says the North has abducted 486 of its nationals, chiefly fishermen taken on the maritime borders of the two Koreas, though Pyongyang has not admitted to these allegations.

North Korea admitted in September 2002, however, that it abducted 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

Five of these were repatriated to Japan the following month, with the North saying the other eight had died.

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