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Japanese PM to visit North Korea

/ Source: The Associated Press

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will travel to North Korea for talks with leader Kim Jong Il on the release of family members of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang, the government announced Friday, signaling a breakthrough in a stalemate that has soured Tokyo's relations with the impoverished communist state.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said Koizumi would travel May 22. The talks will also include discussion of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, he 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.

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.

Koizumi last traveled to North Korea for an unprecedented summit with Kim in September 2002.

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 a landmark 2002 summit between Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Pyongyang, however, had so far refused to release the former abductees' family relatives -- eight children and one husband.

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.

In an apparent concession to Pyongyang this week, Tokyo said it would not attempt to engage North Korean delegates in a discussion of the abductions at the Beijing talks.