TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said on Friday he will work toward normalizing his country's diplomatic ties with North Korea, the world's last remaining Stalinist state.
Japan, unnerved by North Korea's launch of a missile in August 1998 that flew over Japanese territory, hopes engagement with the secretive Pyongyang regime can help defuse the threat of future launches.
At the same time, analysts say North Korea's gradually improving relations with the United States and South Korea risk isolating Japan if it does not make progress toward normalizing ties.
In a policy speech to the Lower House of parliament on Friday, Obuchi said: ''In close cooperation with the Republic of Korea and the United States, I shall further advance the dialogue that began to develop last year.''
Obuchi gave no details on possible steps, but former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama said last week that bilateral talks on normalizing relations could resume next month.
Japan and North Korea held a first round of preparatory talks in Beijing last month, and Red Cross officials from the two countries reached a breakthrough agreement on food aid and other humanitarian issues.
In the talks, Japan Red Cross delegates promised to press their government to resume food aid to famine-hit North Korea, suspended after the 1998 missile launch. Tokyo has made it clear that a resumption of aid depends on progress in normalizing ties.
In return, North Korean Red Cross officials promised to urge Pyongyang to cooperate in an investigation of missing Japanese, some of whom Tokyo believes were abducted by North Korea.
Obuchi Says All Issues Open To Discussion
Obuchi told parliament he was willing to discuss all humanitarian and security issues that affected normalizing relations.
''I shall strive to ensure that both sides can adopt a positive stance toward each other,'' he said.
Obuchi also vowed to work for an improvement in often fractious relations with China, which remain haunted by lingering resentment of Japan's actions in China before and during World War Two.
Friction has risen recently over a meeting held this past weekend by Japanese ultra-rightists, who insist the Nanjing Massacre never happened. As many as 300,000 civilians were believed to have died at the hands of invading Japanese troops during the 1937-38 occupation of the central Chinese city.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan summoned the Japanese ambassador to express ''strong indignation'' over the rightists' meeting in Osaka.
China, which has long viewed Tokyo's attempts at atonement for the massacre as half-hearted, repeatedly expressed outrage over the event and pressured Japan to block it. But Japan's government said it could not, out of freedom of speech concerns.
China has also repeatedly voiced concern over new guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation which allow Japan for the first time to provide logistical support for U.S. forces.
China fears these military arrangements are designed to protect Taiwan -- which it views as a rebel province that must be reunited with the mainland -- in the event of Chinese military action against the island.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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