TOKYO – Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) will travel to North Korea (search) for wide-ranging talks with leader Kim Jong Il (search) in hopes of winning the release of family members of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago, the government said Friday.
The talks will also include discussion of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs and other bilateral issues with the motive of eventually normalizing relations between the two estranged neighbors, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said. Koizumi will go on May 22.
"The aim is to restore trust between Japan and North Korea," Hosoda said.
Speculation has been high in recent weeks that Koizumi could go to Pyongyang to secure the handover of the relatives — seven children and one husband — of five Japanese who were kidnapped by North Korea decades ago and sent back to Japan in 2002.
Hosoda said there was no guarantee that the relatives would be released when Koizumi goes to Pyongyang.
"This is up to the result of the visit and the negotiations," Hosoda said.
The issue is highly emotional in Japan, where repatriated abductees and their supporters have criticized the government for lack of progress in talks with North Korea. Such a trip, if successful, would be an important political coup for Koizumi, whose ruling coalition faces important elections in the upper house of Parliament in July.
Hosoda acknowledged that negotiations so far had not covered much ground.
"Talks have made little progress so far, and we hope the upcoming visit will make a breakthrough," Hosoda said.
Koizumi last traveled to North Korea for an unprecedented summit with Kim in September 2002.
Announcement of the trip follows high-profile moves by Tokyo to apply pressure on Pyongyang, including a recently enacted measure allowing sanctions against North Korea, in hopes of winning concessions on the abductions. Koizumi's coalition is also pushing for a ban on North Korean ships from Japanese ports.
The families of the kidnapping victims said they had high expectations for Koizumi's trip. Toru Hasuike, whose brother was abducted in the late 1970s and returned to Japan in 2002, called the trip "a brave decision."
"Once he goes there, we hope he will bring back the five abductees' families at the very least, and also find a resolution for other people who are still missing," Hasuike said.
North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping at least 13 Japanese citizens to train spies in Japanese language and customs. Pyongyang said eight of them have since died, and it allowed the five survivors to return to Japan after the 2002 summit.
Pyongyang, however, had so far refused to release the former abductees' family relatives, which include alleged U.S. Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins. He married one of the Japanese abductees and has stayed behind in North Korea with their two daughters.
North Korea had argued in the past that the repatriation of the five was only temporary and Tokyo violated the agreement by keeping the former abductees in Japan. Japanese media have reported in recent weeks that Pyongyang could agree to release the relatives if Koizumi went to Pyongyang.
Some in Japan have opposed a trip by Koizumi, arguing that Pyongyang should first share information on the kidnapping victims that died in North Korea and others that Japan believes were abducted by Northern agents.
Some analysts said there will be some pressure on Koizumi to encourage North Korea to be more accommodating on a number of issues, including its nuclear weapons development.
"The success of his visit will depend on whether North Korea really wants to change or not," said Keiji Kobayashi, a North Korea expert at Kyushu International University. "The question is whether a second visit can bring a change in North Korea's posture, which doesn't seem to be a very easy thing to do."
A North Korean agreement to finally allow the departure of the relatives would reflect Pyongyang's need to advance talks on normalizing relations with Japan, home to the world's second-largest economy and a potential source of much needed aid for the impoverished state.
Officials from both sides met for two days last week to discuss the abductions but did not appear to make much progress.
Japan has long tried to link resolution of the abductions to six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, but that effort has been resisted by Pyongyang and not supported by Beijing, which is hosting working level talks this week on the nuclear issue. Tokyo, however, said this week that it would not attempt to engage North Korean delegates in a discussion of the abductions at the Beijing talks.