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Koizumi to Meet with North Korean Leader - 2004-05-14

Japan's prime minister is making a second trip to North Korea for talks with that country's leader. Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties. The impending visit is raising expectations of a breakthrough on such thorny bilateral issues as North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced Friday he will visit North Korea on May 22. He tells reporters he wants "comprehensive discussions" on the abduction and nuclear issues with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Mr. Koizumi says, since talks on normalizing diplomatic ties have stagnated, it is necessary to break the deadlock, and there could be a breakthrough with his visit.

The trip was expected, but the sudden timing comes as a surprise, raising hopes North Korea will allow family members of abduction victims to return to Japan from the communist state.

Mr. Koizumi made a one-day trip to Pyongyang in September 2002 for a summit with Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim shocked the Japanese by admitting that North Korean agents had abducted 13 Japanese in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that eight of them had died.

The remaining five were allowed to return to Japan in October 2002, but left behind their families, as their visit was supposed to be only temporary.

Japan has insisted repeatedly that the issue must be resolved before it will take any steps to normalize relations with North Korea.

Upper House lawmaker Ichita Yamamoto of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, says a breakthrough is almost certain.

"I personally believe [the] prime minister, at least, is going to take those families back to Japan. Otherwise, he will never go to Pyongyang," he said.

Japan has also been pressing Pyongyang to account for other Japanese Tokyo believes were abducted by North Korean agents.

LDP lawmaker Mr. Yamamoto says most Japanese will approve of the trip.

"It is sure that most of the Japanese people are going to support the prime minister's decision, in case he can at least get those family members back to Japan," he said.

Both the United States and South Korea on Friday expressed support for Mr. Koizumi's planned trip.

U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker, in a statement, said the United States understands that there cannot be normal relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang, without a resolution of the "human tragedy" of the abducted Japanese.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry says it believes the visit will be helpful in working toward a resolution of the nuclear issue.