- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

TOKYO Japan vowed this week to deal squarely with North Korea over its purported abductions of Japanese to the Stalinist state, saying it has become a serious stumbling block toward resuming rapprochement talks.

"It is not just a matter concerning families. It should be taken as a matter concerning the whole of Japan as a country," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said after meeting the families of some of the kidnap victims.

"We will never neglect it and will continue to demand a responsible action on North Korea's part," Mr. Koizumi told reporters at his official residence.

The meeting was arranged after Tokyo police confirmed last week that Keiko Arimoto was abducted to North Korea in 1983. She was then a 23-year-old Japanese exchange student in London.

Megumi Yao, the former wife of one of nine Japanese Red Army members who hijacked a Japan Airline jet to Pyongyang and settled there in 1970, testified in court here that the guerrilla group and a North Korean diplomat were involved in the abduction. Mrs. Yao said she took part in Miss Arimoto's abduction.

Miss Arimoto's case has brought to 11 the number of Japanese citizens the government believes were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

But there have been other suspected cases, including the 1963 disappearance of the entire crew from a Japanese fishing boat. Two of the crew members wrote to their families years later that they had been living in North Korea.

Meanwhile, the Koizumi government has decided to set up a task force from the Foreign and Justice ministries, as well as the National Police, to deal with the kidnappings, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe announced.

"The abduction issue is extremely grave, as it concerns the life and physical freedom of our nationals," he said.

According to press reports on Monday, Japanese diplomats made contact over the weekend with their North Korean counterparts in Beijing and demanded an investigation into the kidnappings, including Miss Arimoto's case.

The issue has hampered talks on normalization of relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang since negotiations on the matter began in 1991.

Their last meeting was in late 2000, with Tokyo demanding a solution to the abduction issue and Pyongyang seeking compensation for Japan's colonial rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945.

North Korea has denied involvement in the suspected abductions, but has offered to locate "missing" Japanese. Analysts said Pyongyang's help is contingent on Tokyo continuing shipments of food aid to the starving country.

But the promised search was suspended in December when Tokyo police cracked down on pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans on swindling charges.

Bilateral relations slumped further when the Japanese coast guard sank a suspected North Korean spy boat in a surprise firefight in the East China Sea later that month.

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