TOKYO -- North Korean President Kim Jong Il surprised visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi with a confession yesterday that North Korean agents had kidnapped 11 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to teach language and culture to spies from the isolated communist country. Six of the kidnap victims died, while four are still alive and one is missing.
The sensational admission ended years of denials by the North Korean leadership. Koizumi had made resolving the kidnap issue a precondition for improving diplomatic or economic ties, although it remained uncertain whether the North Korean confession would clear the way for better ties, or instead inflame Japanese public opinion because so many of the victims died.
The confession was in any case a clear signal of North Korean intentions to improve relations with Japan and to break out of its severe diplomatic and economic isolation.
In an appeal to the Bush administration, which has labeled North Korea part of the "axis of evil," Kim pledged to sustain his moratorium on testing ballistic missiles beyond Jan. 1, and told Koizumi that he is "very open" to talks with the Bush administration.
"Kim said his door is always open for dialogue with the United States, and he asked me to convey that message," Koizumi told a news conference in Pyongyang after a historic one-day summit with the enigmatic North Korean leader.
Koizumi said that the North Korean strongman made a rare display of contrition and apologized for the kidnappings. Kim told Koizumi that those responsible had been punished, and he promised not to repeat such misconduct.
"This is not the end of the issues between the two nations," Koizumi said.
"But I believe we are a step closer toward having a framework toward resolving remaining issues," he said, indicating that talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries would commence next month.
Koizumi said he was "shocked beyond words" when Kim told him that six of the Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang's agents between 1977 and 1983 died while in North Korea. Koizumi said the North Korean leader told him that a "fact-finding investigation" had been convened to learn the whereabouts of those kidnapped.
Kim admitted that the 11 had been snatched to teach Japanese language skills to would-be North Korean spies, or so that North Korean agents penetrating South Korea on espionage missions could use the Japanese citizens' identities and passports. Government officials said the North Koreans were unable to verify the whereabouts of an 11th missing person, but they told Tokyo about a 12th man whose name was not on Japanese lists of the missing.
A Japanese official met with the four surviving Japanese and confirmed their identities, a senior government official said, indicating that arrangements would be made for family members to reunite.
A senior Japanese government official attributed Pyongyang's change in attitude -- and its willingness to admit its criminal past -- to the "very tough stance of the Bush administration" toward North Korea, as well as growing economic difficulties. "The North Koreans clearly felt the need to adjust their relationships with neighboring countries," he said. "We are testing their will to change their behaviors. It remains to be seen."
This year, President Bush labeled the North Korean government as part of the "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran, whose development and distribution of weapons of mass destruction, including ballistic missiles and chemical and biological weapons, posed serious danger to the world. More recently, the White House has signaled a willingness to meet "anytime, anywhere" with the North Korean government to discuss how to get inspectors back into North Korea to check on its weapons systems.
North Korea, in turn, has signaled in recent months its desire, or need, to reform a moribund economy and permit greater openness to the outside world. Today, representatives from North and South Korea are scheduled to conduct a ceremony officially beginning a program to rebuild rail links between the two warring Koreas across the demilitarized zone, the last Cold War border in Asia, where a million-man North Korean army is believed to be stationed.