Japan criticises US decision on North Korea

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The Independent Online

Japan pledged on Sunday to try to resolve an emotive dispute with North Korea over citizens abducted by Pyongyang decades ago, after Washington took the secretive communist state off its terrorist blacklist.

The United States, seeking to revive faltering talks on denuclearisation by North Korea, removed it from the list after Pyongyang agreed to measures to verify its nuclear facilities.

The step had been held up by Tokyo's objections until the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals was addressed.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said Japan was committed to making progress on the abductees dispute.

"The Japanese government will proceed with strong determination so that this matter is not left behind," he told reporters.

Prime Minister Taro Aso denied Tokyo would have less leverage in trying to settle the abductees feud.

"We can talk thoroughly about the abductions in future negotiations," he was quoted as saying by Kyodo news agency.

Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said in a statement Tokyo would work with Washington to resolve the abductees issue, and called for a strict system of verification of the North's nuclear facilities.

"Japan believes that in order to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula, which is the goal of the six-party talks, it is extremely important to build a concrete framework for effective verification," he said.

The six-party talks group the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

In a sign of how touchy the topic is for Tokyo, Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, a hardliner on North Korea, called the U.S. decision "extremely regrettable" and said he doubted Washington consulted its ally Japan about the move in advance.

"I believe abductions amount to terrorist acts. I talked with the Yokotas over the phone a while ago and they were very shocked," Nakagawa told reporters in Washington, referring to the parents of perhaps the best-known abductee, Megumi Yokota.

Kyodo said last week that Washington had alerted Tokyo to its looming decision, and a White House spokesman said U.S. President George W. Bush spoke to Aso on Saturday and reaffirmed support for Japan on the abduction of its citizens.

But Nakagawa said if no progress is made at the six-party talks, North Korea would be seen as "making a mockery of" the United States.

Nakagawa, a former head of a lawmakers group devoted to resolving the abductees issue, was in Washington for a meeting of Group of Seven finance ministers and central bankers.

Japanese media worried the government had lost a trump card in negotiating with North Korea on the abductees, although some said that was not the case.

"Many in the Japanese public are deeply suspicious of North Korea and want a tough stance on the country, so the delisting will be a disappointment and raise questions over U.S. policy," said Shunji Hiraiwa, a professor at the University of Shizuoka.

"But in reality, there won't be progress on the abductees issue unless there is progress on the nuclear issue."

South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Kim Sook said getting rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons is of greater concern than any bilateral issue with North Korea.

"It is a matter of concern to us that issues in one country or some bilateral issues will be an obstacle to the ultimate goal of the six-party talks," Kim told a news briefing.

Relatives of the Japanese abductees, snatched from their homes decades ago to help train North Korean spies in language and culture, expressed outrage and sorrow and urged their own government to do more to resolve the problem.

"It's very disappointing that we're increasingly in a disadvantageous position," Shigeo Iizuka, 70, who heads a group of abductees' families, told reporters.

"We want to call on the government to take concrete action."

Japan on Friday extended for another six months its economic sanctions on North Korea, including a ban on imports, citing lack of progress on denuclearisation and the kidnappings feud.