- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

TOKYO Japan's prime minister will make an unprecedented visit to North Korea next month, meeting the leader of the secretive communist nation in hopes of healing one of Asia's deepest historic rifts.

In a sudden announcement, Junichiro Koizumi said yesterday he will visit Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, Sept. 17 for a summit with leader Kim Jong-il. It will be the first time a Japanese prime minister has visited North Korea and the first time these two men have met.

"I want to discuss directly with him the possibility of restarting efforts to normalize our relations," Mr. Koizumi said. "If the leaders don't talk, we can't move forward even one step."

Japan, which ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910 to 1945, has had no diplomatic ties with the North since its creation in 1948, and animosity between the two nations runs deep. Mr. Koizumi plans to return to Japan the same day.

Mr. Koizumi's decision comes amid signs of a thaw between South Korea and North Korea.

Also yesterday, North and South Korea announced after economic talks in Seoul that the North agreed to reconnect severed road and rail links with South Korea this year in return for food and fertilizer.

Plans to build a railway and a parallel road across the western sector of the border originally were included in an agreement reached at a historic inter-Korean summit in the summer of 2000. South Korea completed work on its side of the border, but North Korea stopped construction early last year amid tension with the United States, Seoul's main ally.

The United States also is considering sending a special envoy to North Korea.

Mr. Kim met this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia. The most recent leader to visit North Korea was Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri in March.

In January, President Bush included North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" that fosters international terrorism. Mr. Koizumi stressed that he had discussed the visit over the phone with both Mr. Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung before making his decision.

Seok Tong-youn, spokesman of South Korea's Foreign Ministry, said Seoul welcomed the news of Mr. Koizumi's visit.

"Our government has been emphasizing that the best way to ensure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia is for countries concerned to try to resolve problems through dialogue in concert with our government's engagement policy toward North Korea," he said.

Japanese chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Tokyo sees normalizing relations with North Korea as a "historical duty."

North Korea's state-run media also announced Mr. Koizumi's plans to meet with Mr. Kim.

"It is expected that his visit to Pyongyang will mark an important occasion in settling the issues between the two countries and normalizing bilateral relations," the Korean Central News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

Mr. Fukuda acknowledged that many obstacles must be cleared before formal ties can be established.

The two countries, however, have tried to move closer.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi met her North Korean counterpart, Paek Nam-sun, in July, and senior officials from both sides met in Pyongyang this month to discuss the proposed establishment of diplomatic relations. It was the first such meeting in two years.

The talks brought a rare exchange of letters between Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Kim. Mr. Koizumi's letter, passed through the delegations, said Japan was sincere in wanting to tackle issues blocking normalization talks and expected the same from North Korea.

At a banquet with the visiting Japanese mission, Mr. Kim replied, "It is a very encouraging message, and I thank you."

North Korea repeatedly has demanded that Japan more fully atone for its militarist past and has strongly criticized Tokyo's postwar military alliance with the United States. Japan also served as a base for U.S. troops fighting North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.

In 1998, North Korea rattled nerves in Asia by firing a rocket that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific. Relations deteriorated further when a suspected North Korean spy ship was sunk in December by Japan's coast guard after ignoring orders to stop.

Japan also has said charges that North Korean agents kidnapped at least 11 Japanese citizens must be resolved before diplomatic ties can be established. Japan says the 11 were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s and forced to train North Korean spies in the Japanese language and culture.

"It will certainly be a topic of discussion," Mr. Koizumi said, calling the abductions a "serious issue."

North Korea has denied the abduction accusations but promised to continue to search for "missing persons."

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