Friday, April 28, 2006

Japan’s government is stepping up pressure on North Korea to help resolve the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents three decades ago, a senior Japanese official said yesterday.

Vice Foreign Minister Akiko Yamanaka said the Bush administration is strongly supporting Tokyo’s efforts to find out what happened to the missing Japanese.

Mrs. Yamanaka and the mother of one of the abducted Japanese met with President Bush yesterday.

Mr. Bush voiced support for resolving the abduction issue and also for doing more to help defectors from North Korea get out of the reclusive communist state.

The high-profile Oval Office meeting with Mr. Bush will help focus more attention on the abduction issue as well as on resolving the problem of North Korea’s covert nuclear program, Mrs. Yamanaka said.

“We can’t really measure how big the impact is to the families and to the international community of President Bush’s meeting today,” she said.

Japan’s government is using existing laws to limit ship visits from North Korea and to curb money transfers and banking by North Korea, which receives large amounts of cash from pro-North Korean residents living in Japan, Mrs. Yamanaka said.

During the 1970s and ‘80s, a unknown number of Japanese nationals disappeared, and suspicions arose that North Korean government agents were involved.

In 2002, during a Japan-North Korea summit, Pyongyang admitted for the first time that it had abducted some Japanese nationals. Japanese officials say were used to help train North Korean agents in language and customs for conducting operations in Japan.

However, North Korea has refused to provide more information beyond a few cases of missing nationals, triggering widespread public outcry in Japan.

Megumi Yokota, 13, was taken by North Korean agents in Niigata prefecture as she returned home from school in 1977. In 2002, North Korea said she died in the country in 1994, after marrying and having a child.

Her mother, Sakie Yokota, testified before Congress yesterday and met Mr. Bush along with Mrs. Yamanaka.

At the White House, Mr. Bush told reporters that the meeting was one of the most emotionally moving he has had since taking office.

“It is hard to believe that a country would foster abduction,” he said. “It’s hard for Americans to imagine that a leader of any country would encourage the abduction of a young child. It’s a heartless country that would separate loved ones, and yet that’s exactly what happened to this mom as a result of the actions of North Korea.”

The president called on North Korea to “respect human rights and human dignity.”

On China, Mrs. Yamanaka said tensions have risen in recent months because of differences between Beijing and Tokyo over Japan’s World War II past and China’s drive for gas reserves in waters claimed by both Japan and China.

However, Japan’s government is seeking to improve relations by sponsoring visits to Japan by Chinese students, she said.

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