TOKYO (AFP) — US President George W. Bush told Japan on Wednesday he shared concerns on North Korea's abductions of Japanese, officials said, amid rising anger here over US plans to lift Pyongyang off a blacklist.
Despite Japan's objections, the United States has said it plans to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for a long-awaited declaration of its nuclear programmes expected Thursday.
"I will never forget the abduction issue. I fully understand Japan's concerns and would like to continue close cooperation with Japan," Bush told Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in telephone talks, as quoted by a foreign ministry statement here.
Japan has taken the hardest line in six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear disarmament due to the row over the fate of abductees.
North Korea admitted in 2002 it kidnapped Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese language and culture. It returned five of them and said the case was closed, although it agreed earlier this month to reopen the investigation.
"It is important to move forward in the six-party process towards an abolition of North Korea's nuclear weapons," Fukuda was quoted as telling Bush in their 20-minute conversation.
"We are making utmost efforts in consultation with North Korea towards the settlement of various issues including the abduction issue. We want the United States to continue cooperation with us," Fukuda said.
But Fukuda, who is battling rock-bottom approval ratings, earlier Wednesday came under fire from families of abduction victims, who have gained political clout for their emotionally charged rallies demanding pressure on North Korea.
"I wish the Japanese government voiced more concern to the United States," said Teruaki Masumoto, whose sister was snatched by North Korean agents in 1978.
"I don't want them to say anything that makes it seem like Japan supports this US move as the lives of Japanese are at stake," he said.
Masumoto and other relatives of Japanese abductees visited the US embassy in Tokyo earlier Wednesday to lodge their complaints about removing North Korea from the blacklist.
"This move would erase all of Japan's efforts to pressure North Korea and would crush our morale, so we cannot give up," Masumoto said.
Fukuda, a moderate known for efforts to improve relations with other Asian nations, took over last year from conservative premier Shinzo Abe, who had campaigned throughout his career on the abduction issue.
Abe, who remains a lawmaker, regretted the US go-ahead on the delisting.
"It could affect the Japan-US alliance and the relationship of trust," he told reporters Tuesday.
Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which controls one house of parliament, denounced the Bush administration.
"The United States said nice things to the families of kidnapping victims. But in the end, they didn't care," Ozawa said.
The North Korea agreement has also been unpopular among some US conservatives, who have accused Bush of rushing to seal an achievement in his final months in office.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday that Washington could move to take North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism "quite soon" after Pyongyang makes a full accounting of its nuclear programmes.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due Thursday in the western Japanese city of Kyoto for talks among foreign ministers of the Group of Eight rich nations.
Rice earlier this week said the abduction issue was of "extreme importance" to Washington but cited North Korea's decision to reinvestigate the kidnappings.
"I would hope that Japanese people would recognise that," she said. "This was an issue that was going nowhere until the United States pressed the issue."
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