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Katsuei Hirasawa, parliamentary secretary to the home affairs ministry, resigned that post after drawing flak for a secret trip he made to China to apparently hold talks with North Korean officials about resolving the abduction issue, the ministry said Friday.

Criticism of the apparently unauthorized trip by Hirasawa and Taku Yamasaki, both Liberal Democratic Party members, dominated political circles Friday, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi saying intergovernmental talks should be the only channel for bilateral negotiations.

But Yamasaki, who no longer has a Diet seat following his defeat in the November general election, told reporters upon returning from the two-day trip to Dalian, northeastern China, that he expects working-level bilateral talks between Japan and North Korea to resume soon.

Yamasaki said that he and Hirasawa met with Jong Thae Hwa, North Korea’s top negotiator in bilateral normalization talks with Japan.

In December, Hirasawa visited Beijing with other Diet lawmakers seeking a resolution to the abduction issue. He met with Jong on that occasion too.

Hirasawa telephoned LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe on Friday night and told him that negotiations between the two countries may resume this month, according to sources close to the matter.

Hirasawa, as a member of the House of Representatives with a key post in Koizumi’s administration, has taken the brunt of criticism for the visit.

The Cabinet approved his resignation as parliamentary secretary to the Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry the same day. He also offered to resign as head of the secretariat of the group of lawmakers looking in to the abduction issue.

Cabinet members are concerned that Hirasawa’s meeting with North Korean officials may lead Pyongyang to construe it as being formal contact with the Japanese government.

The Democratic Party of Japan requested that the Lower House punish Hirasawa for leaving the country for personal reasons and without permission while the Diet is in session.

Japan and North Korea resumed talks in February in Pyongyang, having experienced a hiatus since October 2002. But the countries have yet to arrange a schedule for the next round, after they held talks on the sidelines of six-way talks in Beijing on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program in February.

Terror list directive

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Pyongyang must address the issue of Japanese abducted to North Korea if it wants the United States to remove its name from the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries, a senior U.S. official said here Thursday.

The abduction issue is “one of the most important” elements in the designation of North Korea as a terrorism-sponsoring state, Ambassador Cofer Black, who serves as the administration’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said in congressional testimony.

After Black’s testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Terrorism, a senior U.S. official said the administration is well aware of the importance of the abduction issue.

The official declined to say whether the abduction issue would be included in an annual State Department report on international terrorism to be released in late April.

Previous reports made no reference to the abduction issue. Relatives of the abducted Japanese asked U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to include the issue in the upcoming report when he visited Japan in February.

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