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Japan, North Korea Reopen Talks, Seek to Improve Volatile Relations

By Rone Tempest
Los Angeles Times

In a move that could bring much-needed aid to food-strapped North Korea, Japanese, and North Korean diplomats agreed Friday to reopen long-stalled negotiations to normalize relations between the two East Asian countries.

After two days of meetings in the Chinese capital, diplomats agreed to an agenda of ambassadorial level discussions leading to an eventual exchange of diplomatic recognition between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

In a gesture to appease volatile political sentiments in Japan, North Korea agreed to allow an unspecified number of Japanese women living in Korea to visit their families in Japan.

Kyodo news agency reported that between 10 and 20 women will be permitted to visit Japan next month.

The fate of 1,800 Japanese women who emigrated to North Korea between 1959 and 1982 has been a major issue in Japan. In 1992, talks between the two countries broke off after Japan accused the Pyongyang regime of kidnapping young Japanese women as part of a bizarre espionage plot.

In exchange for the visits home by the Japanese women, most of whom have North Korean husbands, North Korean diplomats appealed to Tokyo for massive food aid to ease near-famine conditions in their country.

Japan, which has a large surplus of rice, some of which is rotting in its granaries, has been under international pressure to join in international food-relief efforts for the hungry North Koreans. On Tuesday in New York, U.N. Undersecretary General Yaushi Akashi once again appealed to Japan to provide aid.

"I hope Japan will embark on assistance," Akashi said.

But political pressures inside Japan have so far kept the government of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto from participating.

"Under the present circumstances," said Japanese political analyst Minoru Morita, "some parliament members, and also some citizens and grass-roots activists, are fiercely opposed to food aid. The government cannot come up with consensus to provide food aid. So (in these talks) the foreign ministry is desperately seeking for opportunities to persuade them."

According to a Japanese foreign ministry official in Beijing, chief representative Kunihiko Makita told the North Koreans that "Japan would positively consider the issue of food aid."

According to Japan's Nikkei news service, Japan could provide as much as $20 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea through the United Nations as early as next month.

Morita predicted that if the talks continue smoothly, more food aid could be forthcoming before the end of the year. "The key issue is how desperately North Korea wants food aid from Japan," Morita said.