Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will meet with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, next week in a summit described by the Japanese government Friday as an attempt to engage Kim on a range of sensitive issues, including nuclear proliferation.
Foremost on the agenda will be an effort by Koizumi to secure the release of relatives of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents during the 1970s and 1980s. But Koizumi's talks in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on May 22 are intended to go beyond the abduction issue, he said. He will seek a breakthrough to a 20-month impasse over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs as well as attempt to rejuvenate talks on normalizing ties between Japan and North Korea, an initiative discussed at Koizumi's first summit with Kim in September 2002.
Despite Japan's strong ties with the United States, Koizumi is taking an approach that differs from the strategy employed by the Bush administration. The administration has refused direct engagement with Kim's secretive government despite U.S. intelligence indicating that North Korea has amassed an arsenal of as many as eight nuclear devices.
North Korea has a plutonium reactor and appears to have recently reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods for use in weapons. U.S. diplomats said North Korea admitted two years ago to having a uranium enrichment program that it now denies. The United States and North Korea are no closer to a resolution following two failed rounds of six-nation talks in Beijing involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.
Koizumi's trip comes after a surprise meeting between Kim and Chinese leaders last month, and high level military talks are scheduled between North and South Korea on May 26.
Koizumi, 62, is a silver-maned politician known for uncommonly flashy politics in a country not given to bold international diplomacy. Analysts said he is wagering both his political career and Japan's rising global diplomatic clout with the summit.
The prime minister last met Kim in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002 -- a first for a Japanese leader since Tokyo's brutal imperial occupation of the Korean Peninsula ended in 1945.
The new summit announcement faced criticism, coming on the same day revelations surfaced about the prime minister's connection to an ongoing scandal involving politicians who have failed to pay into the national pension system. Koizumi's key aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, stepped down last week after acknowledging he had missed payments. Naoto Kan, leader of Japan's largest opposition party, followed suit on Monday.
The push to bring home the family members of the abductees is also a highly emotional issue that has consumed Japan. Koizumi, his critics alleged, may be trying to bring them home as leverage with the public before key elections for the upper house of parliament in July.
"This Koizumi visit to Pyongyang is motivated by the upper house elections and to lessen the impact of his pension problem," said Tsutomo Nishioka, a leader of a support group for the abducted Japanese. "Why does he have to go now?"
Speculation has been growing for weeks that Koizumi might travel to Pyongyang to pick up the relatives of five Japanese citizens who were finally returned to Japan in October 2002. The release of the five came after Kim, during his first summit with Koizumi, surprised Japan by admitting the kidnappings after years of denials.
Five abductees came home to Japan, but they had to leave behind seven North Korean-born children now in their teens and twenties. An eighth family member is Charles Jenkins, 64, an American deserter of the Korean War who married a Japanese woman kidnapped by the North Koreans. U.S. officials have quietly told the Japanese they would expect Jenkins to be jailed and extradited for trial in the United States if he is brought to Japan.
Koizimi's image could suffer at home and abroad if he is seen offering too sweet a financial deal to the North Koreans to win release of the abductees' children, or if he makes no progress on the nuclear issue, analysts said.
From North Korea's perspective, resolution of the abductee issue could be beneficial, analysts said. "The North Koreans are prepared to come to the table, and Koizumi is going there to persuade Kim Jong Il to cooperate," said Pyong Jin Il, editor of the Tokyo-based Korea Report. "Koizumi is to become a bridge between Kim Jong Il and President Bush. This seems to be Kim's real motive in hosting Koizumi. But Koizumi can not come home empty-handed."
U.S. officials familiar with Japan said there are concerns that if Koizumi promises or gets too much from Kim, it could work against the Bush administration's efforts to isolate North Korea in the hopes of forcing it to disarm. But U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard H. Baker Jr. welcomed the announcement, saying in a statement that the United States "supports the government of Japan's efforts to gain release of the abductees and their families."
Special correspondents Sachiko Sakamaki and Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.