WASHINGTON — Relatives of Japanese abducted by North Korea were not surprised that U.S. officials were reluctant to immediately assume a tougher stance against Pyongyang.

They had anticipated that the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, would not be as aggressive about the abduction issue as his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, appeared to be.

Shigeo Iizuka, chairman of the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, said he sensed a change in mood after the Republicans made way for the Democrats. “It was just as I expected,” he said.

“I got the impression that the Obama administration is not taking as firm an attitude toward North Korea as the administration of former President Bush,” he said.

Iizuka led one of three Japanese groups that visited Washington recently to lobby for support on the abduction issue. His younger sister, Yaeko Taguchi, was taken to North Korea in 1978, when she was 22.

He and the others, either kin of abductees or people working in support of the relatives, were referring to the reluctance of U.S. officials to place North Korea back on the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring nations and tighten sanctions against Pyongyang. Bush described the North as part of an “axis of evil” but removed the reclusive state from the terrorism blacklist before leaving office.

The abductions of Japanese by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s have remained a constant source of friction between Japan and the North, and have precluded any chance of Tokyo and Pyongyang normalizing ties.

It is not clear why the relatives felt more comfortable with Bush in office than Obama, since it was the Bush camp that acted against their wishes by striking North Korea from the terrorism list.

One reason may be because Bush met the mother of an abductee at the White House in 2006 in an unprecedented show of support.

Another reason is apparently the willingness on the part of Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, to hold direct dialogue with Pyongyang officials to advance the six-party talks on disbanding the North’s nuclear programs.

Tsutomu Nishioka, acting chairman of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, or NARKN, said the Obama administration’s North Korea policy is a continuation of the soft stance seen during Bush’s last two years in office.

But he said he is not as pessimistic about the future U.S. policy line, due to lessons learned from the soft stance adopted by Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. delegate to the six-party talks under Bush.

“Hill made so many concessions (to North Korea) but got nothing. The theory that if you concede, North Korea will change is now being viewed as ineffective because of Hill’s track record,” Nishioka said.

In a similar vein, Teruaki Masumoto, secretary general of Iizuka’s association, said Hill’s soft stance prevented progress on resolving the abductions.

“We are convinced North Korea will not abandon its nuclear programs,” said Masumoto, whose sister, Rumiko, was abducted by North Korea in 1978. He warned against being tricked again into continuing with a conciliatory approach or making further concessions.

Jin Matsubara, a member of the Parliamentarian League for Early Repatriation of Japanese Citizens Kidnapped by North Korea, cited the need to seek support from Kurt Campbell, the nominee for assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

“I doubt to what extent Bosworth will take the initiative in dealing with issues surrounding North Korea,” he said. “We believe Campbell will play some leadership role in this field.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Campbell, a former senior Defense Department official well-versed in Japanese affairs, will succeed Hill.

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