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Japan plans to accept entry of North Korean sports minister in November

Kyodo

The government plans to allow the North Korean sports minister to enter the country in late November to attend a meeting connected with the 2020 Games, sources said Saturday.

North Korea has told officials involved in the preparation for the general assembly meeting of the Association of National Olympic Committees that Kim Il Guk, minister of physical culture and sports, wants to participate in the gathering from Nov. 28 to 29 in Tokyo, according to the sources.

Japan has banned North Korean nationals from entering the country as part of unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang over its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

It is extremely rare for a North Korean minister to visit Japan. The two nations have never had diplomatic relations.

The government is making arrangements for the sports minister’s visit, believing the public will not see it as a problem if the purpose is to attend a meeting related to the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The two-day general assembly of ANOC will be attended by about 1,300 officials, including Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.

Bach visited Pyongyang in March and held discussions with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other senior officials.

During Bach’s three-day stay, North Korea’s National Olympic Committee announced the country’s intention to participate in the Tokyo Olympics.

Officials present at the discussions with Kim Jong Un included Choe Ryong Hae, a right-hand man to the leader, and the sports minister, who is also chairman of the country’s Olympic committee.

Among major countries dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, Japan is the only one to have been kept at arm’s length since Pyongyang began a string of diplomatic engagements this year.

The rapprochement between North and South Korea has accelerated since they fielded a combined team at the Winter Olympics in February.

In addition to holding talks with Chinese, South Korean and U.S. leaders, Kim now plans to hold a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin by the end of the year.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he also wants to meet with Kim in hopes of settling the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

Intelligence officials of Japan and North Korea have been communicating behind the scenes, but according to sources with knowledge of the situation, so far no major progress has been made toward the holding of face-to-face talks between their leaders or on the abduction issue.

By permitting the entry of the sports minister, the government hopes to encourage North Korea to adopt a conciliatory stance, the sources said.