TOKYO – North Korea agreed Saturday to release the family members of Japanese citizens kidnapped by Northern agents, and Japan pledged aid to the impoverished country at a summit between the two nations' leaders. Five children of the abductees arrived in Tokyo hours later.
The agreement marked a breakthrough in what had been an emotional standoff between the two Asian neighbors. Talks on normalization of ties between them have been stalled by disagreement over the fate of the abductees' families and other issues.
North Korea (search) admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens in the 1980s and 70s. Pyongyang said eight had died, but allowed the five survivors to return to Japan. Tokyo has since pressed for the release of the eight family members left behind: seven children and one husband.
In the 90-minute summit, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) said he also pressed the enigmatic North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (search) on his nuclear weapons programs, won a pledge from North Korea to continue a moratorium on missile tests and urged Kim to work with wealthier nations for the sake of his impoverished population.
"I emphasized strongly to Kim Jong Il that there is very little to gain in terms of energy aid or food aid by possessing nuclear weapons," Koizumi told reporters in Pyongyang. "But if you abandon nuclear weapons, you can gain the international community's cooperation."
Koizumi agreed to extend 250,000 tons of food aid and $10 million worth of medical supplies and humanitarian aid to North Korea, which is desperate for assistance.
He also told Kim that Japan would not impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang, despite recent legislation allowing them.
Koizumi said the aid pledge was being made through and at the request of international organizations and should not be considered an exchange for North Korea's release of the family members. It seemed likely, however, that the pledge of aid was key in winning their release.
Koizumi returned to Tokyo on Saturday night, and five children of former abductees followed about 30 minutes later. He was expected to have a meeting with them later after they were reunited with their families.
Pyongyang also praised the summit, calling it "sincere and candid" through its official Korean Central News Agency. The statement was unusually conciliatory for a nation that regularly vilifies Japan.
It said the talks "mark an important and historic event in restoring the confidence, improving the relations between the two countries and promoting peace and stability in Asia and the rest of the world."
American Charles Jenkins (search), who is married to one of the former abductees, is accused of deserting his U.S. Army unit in 1965 and defecting to the North. He told Koizumi in an hour-long meeting Saturday that he and his two daughters would rather remain in North Korea than face possible extradition and prosecution in the United States.
Koizumi said Jenkins reacted favorably, however, to Kim's idea of meeting his Japanese wife Hitomi Soga in Beijing.
Kim also promised to investigate the fates of other abductees, including the eight that Pyongyang says are dead and two who are unaccounted for. Some in Japan believe that dozens of other possible kidnapping victims may still be alive in North Korea.
The former abductees in Tokyo said they had mixed feelings about the deal. Some expressed frustration that Jenkins and his daughters would not be coming to Japan, while relatives of those believed dead were furious that aid had been offered without a full accounting of the victims.
"The outcome is the worst we had expected," said Shigeru Yokota, whose daughter Megumi is one of the eight who were said to be dead. "At the news (of the agreement), the voices of our anger filled the room."
The one-day trip was Koizumi's first visit to Pyongyang (search) since an unprecedented meeting with Kim in September 2002.
Both leaders had an interest in a favorable outcome. Kim was eager to get foreign aid for his collapsed economy and Koizumi wanted to resolve the emotional dispute over Japanese kidnapping victims ahead of parliamentary elections in July.
The results also boded well for potential moves to establish diplomatic ties.
"We must normalize this abnormal relationship," Koizumi said, adding, however, that the two sides had not set a date for talks on normalization.
Kim and Koizumi greeted each other in front of the summit room with a simple handshake.
"I believe it is a good thing that you have returned and I welcome you," Kim said as they met. Koizumi bowed slightly and answered "I am fine," when Kim inquired about his health.
The two countries have never had formal diplomatic ties. Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910 until its World War II defeat in 1945, and distrust between it and North Korea runs deep.
Some analysts believe another motive for Kim may be to undermine multilateral talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. They say Kim might believe that a deal with Japan could soften Tokyo's support for the tough stance pursued by Washington.
Tokyo, however, is highly wary of North Korea's nuclear weapons program because virtually all of Japan is within range of the North's missiles.
Tokyo announced in October 2000 that it was donating 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea through the United Nations, but has not sent food aid since then because of the nuclear and abductions issues. Japan did, however, send medical supplies for a recent train explosion near North Korea's border with China.