Rice says U.S. won't forget Japanese abductees

BERLIN (Reuters) - The United States will continue to press for the release of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by North Korea as it seeks the resumption of disarmament talks with Pyongyang, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Monday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivers remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington in this June 3, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/Files

The United States expects North Korea to hand over a long-awaited declaration of its nuclear programs soon, paving the way for the talks to resume. U.S. officials say this would also allow the United States to take steps to remove North Korea from its list of nations sponsoring terrorism.

But for Japan, one of the countries in the multilateral talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, the fate of more than a dozen Japanese kidnapped by North Koreans is a highly emotive issue and has kept Tokyo and Pyongyang from normalizing ties.

Japan worries that the United States will remove North Korea from its list of nations sponsoring terrorism before a resolution of the issue.

“We have made very clear that the United States is not going to set aside or forget the Japanese abduction issue,” Rice told reporters on the plane to Berlin, where she will attend a conference on security in the Palestinian territories on the sidelines of a donors conference.

“We’re going to continue to press North Korea to make sure this issue is dealt with,” Rice said. “Japan is one of America’s strongest allies in Asia, I should say one of America’s strongest allies in the world and we recognize the sensitivity of this issue,” she said.

Japanese and North Korean officials have held talks in China that resulted in Tokyo agreeing to lift some sanctions on the North in return for Pyongyang’s agreement to reinvestigate the fate of Japanese abductees.

North Korea was added to the U.S. list of nations sponsoring terrorism after one of its agents confessed to blowing up a South Korean passenger jet in late 1987.

Pyongyang admitted in 2002 that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, five of whom have since been repatriated to Japan.

North Korea says the other eight are dead, but Tokyo wants more information about their fate as well as information on another four people it says were kidnapped.