- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Relatives of Japanese nationals kidnapped and held for decades by North Korea said yesterday they fear their cause could be trampled in the Bush administration’s rush to make a deal with Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons programs.

The case of the Japanese abductees has emerged as a sticking point in the six-party talks to end the North’s nuclear programs and has put new strains on the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Teruaki Masumoto, secretary-general of the Tokyo-based Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, said in an interview during a Washington visit that ignoring the hostage issue could ultimately undermine the effort to force North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to give up his nuclear programs.

“If we ignore the human rights issues, it will not be good for Japan, not good for the United States and not good for the negotiations as a whole,” he said. “Many, many people in Japan would feel betrayed.”

Mr. Masumoto’s sister, Rumiko, was 24 when she was kidnapped by North Korean agents from a beach in southern Japan in August 1978. She and other Japanese citizens were taken in the 1970s and 1980s, apparently to provide language and cultural training for North Korean spies.

Five of the abductees were subsequently allowed to return home, but the Japanese government maintains that at least a dozen more of its citizens have not been accounted for. Private human rights groups say the number of abductees may be much higher.

In Ms. Masumoto’s case, North Korea said both she and her Japanese husband died more than two decades ago, but the regime has produced no proof of their deaths.

Christopher Hill, the State Department’s point man in the six-party talks, met yesterday with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sook, to discuss the status of the negotiations.

The North is in the process of dismantling a key nuclear reactor site in return for promised energy aid and the long-term prospect of normal relations with its neighbors and the United States.

But the negotiations have been rocked in recent days by revelations of a possible North Korean link to Syria’s covert nuclear program, and U.S. critics of the talks say the Bush administration has made too many concessions to Pyongyang just to keep the talks alive.

The abductee issue is a highly emotive one in Japan. The government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on April 11 extended for another six months harsh economic sanctions on North Korea largely because of the stalemate over the abductee issue.

The delegation of Japanese advocates for the abductees said they were in Washington this week to meet with lawmakers and members of the administration, including officials in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

But Osamu Eya, chief of a Japanese investigative committee on the abductees, said the United States now appears set to consider dropping North Korea from the official list of terrorist states in exchange for progress solely on the nuclear issue.

“Delisting” North Korea as a terrorist state could allow Pyongyang to tap the World Bank and other international lending institutions and shrug off Japanese pressure to resolve the abductees issue.

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