Clinton to Meet Families of Abducted Japanese — U.S. Emphasis on Seizures by N. Korea in '70s, '80s Accompanied by Peace Outline for Pyongyang

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday that when she visits Tokyo next week, she will meet with the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents, highlighting an emotionally sensitive issue at the same time she extended an olive branch to the government in Pyongyang.

During a speech in New York before the Asia Society, Clinton said the Obama administration was willing to grant North Korea a range of benefits -- including normalized relations, a peace treaty and energy and economic incentives -- "if North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program."

Although those elements of a final agreement had been embraced by the Bush administration as far back as 2005, it was rare for any Bush official to lay out the terms as clearly as Clinton did in her speech. Clinton's phrasing -- "if North Korea is genuinely prepared" -- also suggested the Obama administration might be willing to take some of these steps before North Korea's nuclear program is completely eliminated.

The six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program were stymied for months after the Bush administration in October removed North Korea from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism in the hope of securing an agreement to verify aspects of its nuclear program. But North Korea balked at publicly committing to terms that the Bush administration claimed had been reached in a private deal.

Bush's delisting decision was highly controversial in Japan, because for many years, the United States had said it would not remove North Korea from the list as long as the abductee issue was unresolved. Japan has insisted that North Korea first provide details on the abductions of Japanese citizens by the reclusive nation during the 1970s and '80s, apparently to obtain Japanese teachers. North Korea leader Kim Jong Il has conceded the abductions took place and returned five Japanese, but the North Korean government has refused to provide details on others, who it says have died.

Bush had met at the White House with the mother of Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old who vanished more than three decades ago. But the pleas of Japanese officials that the president not remove North Korea from the list were brushed aside in a bid to secure a final diplomatic victory. Indeed, because of the sensitivity of the issue in the North Korea talks, sources said there was resistance in the State Department to Clinton's interest in holding the meeting.

After her speech, Clinton told reporters she wanted to meet with the families "on a very personal and, you know, human basis. I don't know that I'll be meeting as a secretary of state any more than I will be meeting with them as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister." Clinton said she attaches "great importance to the abduction issue," and "it's important that their plight not be forgotten."

Since President Obama took office, the North Korean government has heaped invective on the conservative government in South Korea, and there are near-daily reports out of Tokyo and Seoul that Pyongyang appears to be preparing a missile test. "It is incumbent upon North Korea to avoid any provocative action and unhelpful rhetoric toward South Korea," Clinton warned in her speech.

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