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N. Korea’s Japanese Start Reunions

November 9, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ An 84-year-old Japanese woman who moved to North Korea and was then barred by that country from returning to Japan for five decades was among a group of women Sunday who shared tearful reunions with their relatives.

Haruko Nishimoto is the oldest among 15 Japanese women who arrived over the weekend from isolationist North Korea as part of a Red Cross-organized visit aimed at smoothing relations between the two Asian nations.

``My aunt was waiting for us in a wheelchair. With tearful eyes, she clasped my hands tightly for a long time,″ said one relative who met Ms. Nishimoto.

Another relative said, ``I had a strong impression from her words that she has not given up the dream that she can return to Japan some day.″

Most of the visiting women, all married to North Korean men, left Japan around 1960 and had not been allowed by North Korea to go abroad until now. About 1,800 Japanese women and a small number of men still live there.

Ms. Nishimoto, however, arrived in the communist country in 1932 and worked as a nurse. She has not returned to Japan in 56 years.

Japan, which ruled all of Korea as a colony from 1910 until 1945, never established diplomatic relations with North Korea after the peninsula split into the communist North and capitalist South. Wives of men from North Korea nevertheless were allowed to resettle there.

The women’s six-day visit followed tortuous negotiations between Japan and North Korea, and is considered an important step toward normalizing relations.

A delegation from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake was scheduled to leave for Pyongyang on Monday on a mission to bring about a resumption of talks.

Talks collapsed in November 1992 when North Korea rejected Japan’s demand for information about a Japanese woman allegedly abducted by North Korean agents. Also deepening the divide are the North’s frequent accusations that Japan is trying to revive militarism.

The women’s visit is being handled carefully. While their reunions are private, there have been no disparaging public comments about the reclusive North, which is suffering severe food shortages.

``Life (in North Korea) is stable. I am very happy. I am not regretting my life,″ Toyoko Uda, 61, was quoted by her friends as saying. Uda married a North Korean singing teacher and left Japan for Pyongyang in 1959.

Representing the women, Yoshie Arai, 64, told a reception held by the Japanese Red Cross that ``we always think of our parents and relatives in our minds.″

In Tokyo on Sunday, 14 of the visiting women met with a total of 86 family members, relatives and friends, the Red Cross said. The women, accompanied by Japanese Red Cross officials, will now spend three days in their hometowns.

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