Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Koizumi gambles on progress in Pyongyang nuclear talks

By Linda Sieg  /  REUTERS , TOKYO

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will win kudos at home if he re-unites the families of kidnapped Japanese as a result of his upcoming summit in Pyongyang, but he needs to make progress in the crisis over North Korea's nuclear programs to earn global applause as well.

Koizumi will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on Saturday to seek both a breakthrough in the dispute over the Japanese abductees and progress in deadlocked six-party talks on the communist state's nuclear arms program.

"I think the prime minister has a very strong determination to act in a very proactive way to bring about peace and stability in the region," a government source said.

"We have no intention whatsoever of putting the question of nuclear weapons on the shelf," the source added.

Working level talks on the nuclear crisis ended in Beijing on Saturday with little apparent success in narrowing gaps between the two main protagonists, the US and North Korea. The other participants were South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

`Very little progress'

The nuclear question is the delicate part," said Masao Okonogi, a Korea specialist at Keio University in Tokyo.

"There was little progress at the working talks and it is very hard for North Korea to compromise with the US. Conversely, there is a chance that Kim wants to use Japan as a messenger, a mediator, and so will say something to Koizumi," he said.

North Korea wants compensation for giving up its nuclear arms program, with a deal for a freeze as a first step, and says it has the right to pursue nuclear projects for peaceful purposes.

The US wants North Korea to abandon completely both a program to make weapons-grade plutonium and a uranium enrichment program that Pyongyang now says does not exist.

"It's very hard to expect North Korea to accept in talks with Japan the demand for complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling that it has rejected in the six-way talks," defense policy analyst Satoshi Morimoto said in a TV talk show last weekend.

But he added: "While not accepting complete dismantle-ment, North Korea may show a more positive stance toward freezing its nuclear program."

The latest crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions emerged on October 2002, when US officials said Pyongyang had confessed to pursuing a project to enrich uranium for weapons.

One more time

That was just one month after Koizumi's first summit in Pyongyang, where Kim made the stunning admission that his agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies.

Five Japanese abductees then came home to Japan, but had to leave behind their seven North Korean-born children and an American spouse, who Washington says was a defector.

Japan wants all the relatives to be allowed to come to Japan. It also wants better information about eight abductees Pyongyang says are dead and another two Tokyo believes were also kid-napped.

Kim also promised Koizumi in 2002 that North Korea would keep its international pledges about its atomic ambitions.

But after the October disclosure by US officials -- later denied by North Korea -- Pyongyang pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelled UN inspectors and took a plutonium plant out of mothballs.

Talks on establishing diplomatic ties with Japan -- a prerequisite for Tokyo to give North Korea's struggling economy large-scale aid -- also stalled.

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