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North Korea earlier this year told Japan through informal channels that it would allow the relatives of five repatriated Japanese to leave the country if Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi goes to Pyongyang to pick them up, government sources said Sunday.

The revelation comes on the heels of media reports that the prime minister is contemplating such a visit to break the impasse in the abduction issue.

According to the sources, the North Korean side made the suggestion on “several occasions” in March and April. They added they believe the move was triggered by Pyongyang’s desire to improve bilateral ties and extract much-needed economic aid from Japan.

At the same time, North Korea said it would like to “strive to resolve problems between Japan and North Korea through a summit” between its leader Kim Jong Il and Koizumi, the sources said.

But Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Shinzo Abe expressed caution.

A visit by Koizumi to Pyongyang would signify “a very grave decision” by Japan regarding the abductions issue, Abe said on a TV Asahi talk show Sunday.

“It is necessary to cautiously study the idea of Koizumi going (to North Korea) under the circumstances in which our people have been taken hostage,” Abe said.

Sources close to the two countries said Saturday that Tokyo brought up a Koizumi visit to Pyongyang at bilateral talks held in Beijing last Tuesday and Wednesday, and that the North Korean officials responded that they would take it back to their government for further consideration.

If Koizumi visits Pyongyang, the international community would take it as virtual diplomatic recognition of North Korea, Abe said.

Japan does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

“The prime minister’s decision to visit is very difficult unless there are clear prospects that all pending issues will be solved,” Abe said, apparently warning against any moves to treat the abduction issue as settled while the fate of 10 other people Tokyo believes were abducted by North Korea remain unclear.

Tokyo has demanded that Pyongyang let the five former abductees now living in Japan be reunited with their eight relatives, who are still in North Korea.

Pyongyang has insisted Tokyo must first return the five to North Korea, saying Japan broke a promise to have them return after a short stay in Japan. Tokyo has denied having made such a promise.

The five are among 13 nationals Pyongyang has admitted to abducting. North Korea has said the remaining eight have since died.

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