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2ND LD: Fates of missing people also on agenda with N. Korea: Abe.

NIIGATA, Japan, Feb. 25 Kyodo

(EDS: RECASTING THROUGHOUT WITH FOCUS ON ABE'S MEETING WITH ABDUCTEES)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Sunday that Japan will urge North Korea to investigate the fates of missing people whom families believe were abducted by North Korea while repeating its demand that Pyongyang allow all abduction victims to return home in a bilateral working group under the six-party nuclear talks.

Abe also said Tokyo will demand on the occasion that North Korea hand over two former intelligence officials whom Japanese police have recently put on the international wanted list on suspicion of having instructed an operative to abduct Japanese citizens.

Abe clarified the Japanese positions in the run-up to the expected launch by mid-March of the Japan-North Korean working group to discuss the abduction and other issues with the aim of normalizing bilateral ties under the six-nation framework on Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

''We will refer to North Korea about the specified missing people,'' Abe told reporters after meeting in the city of Niigata with five repatriated abduction victims in an apparent effort to dispel concerns that the abduction issue -- a matter of high concern in Japan -- may be sidelined as talks to denuclearize North Korea proceed.

''It is a matter of course for us to demand the handover'' of suspects, Abe also said concerning the alleged North Korean spy instructors.

During his meeting with the five returnees at a Niigata hotel, Abe stressed Tokyo's desire to begin the working-group discussions as early as possible, and said, ''We will strive to attain results toward resolving the abduction issue.''

Apparently hoping that the moves will help his Cabinet's tumbling support ratings rebound, Abe met with the five former abductees after visiting victims of the powerful earthquake that hit Niigata Prefecture in October 2004.

Having risen to the premiership backed by public support for his tough stance on North Korea over the abduction issue, Abe has recently come under a shower of criticism over lack of leadership.

His meeting with the five returnees was his first since he took office last September, as they last met in February 2004 when Abe was secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Kaoru Hasuike and his wife Yukiko, Yasushi Chimura and his wife Fukie, and Hitomi Soga, who were abducted by North Korean agents in three separate cases in 1978 from Niigata and Fukui prefectures, returned to Japan in October 2002 after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a landmark visit to Pyongyang.

They are among 17 people who the Japanese government formally claims were abducted by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some believe many more have also been abducted by Pyongyang to provide its spies with language training.

During Koizumi's visit, North Korea admitted to abducting 13 Japanese in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then returned the five but said the other eight have died -- a claim disputed by their families and the Japanese government. Pyongyang maintains the issue has been resolved.

Earlier this week in Tokyo, Abe met with families of abduction victims who remain missing and may still be in North Korea to reassure them that Japan will not normalize ties with North Korea until all abductees are returned.

Abe also maintains a policy of seeking progress in resolving the abduction issue before joining energy aid to be provided to North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang taking steps to abandon its nuclear program under an agreement in the Feb. 8-13 six-party talks that also included China, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

The abduction issue has been a major obstacle for Japan and North Korea to advance talks on forging diplomatic ties, with the two sides staying at odds over the number and fates of the abductees other than the five returnees.

Meanwhile, in the city of Nagaoka earlier Sunday, Abe pledged to quake victims who remain forced to live in temporary housing that the government should help them find sources of income as they said taking out new loans to build or repair homes on top of existing loans is a major difficulty.

''I understand that you are having a hard time in spending a third winter in temporary housing,'' Abe told the victims. ''We will do our best so that you can celebrate the next New Year's holidays at your own home.''

The magnitude-6.8 earthquake hit the prefecture in the early morning of Oct. 23, 2004, killing 67 people and injuring around 4,800 others. Some 17,000 houses were heavily damaged or destroyed, driving thousands from their homes.
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Date:Feb 26, 2007
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Previous Article:N. Korea-Japan, N. Korea-U.S. working groups eyed for early March.
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