15 Japanese women from N. Korea visit home Wives allowed to travel in exchange for food aid as part of program


TOKYO -- Fifteen Japanese women who have lived in North Korea for most of their adult lives arrived in Japan last night for a brief return visit, a result of an unofficial "wives for food" exchange between the countries.

The women, clearly thrilled as they flew in to a far more modern homeland than the one they left nearly four decades ago, are to visit family members for one week. If successful, the exchange program may ease tensions between Japan and North Korea and lead to hundreds more Japanese women in North Korea being allowed to return to see their families.

"This is my longtime dream," said Kim Guang-Ok, a Japanese woman who married her college sweetheart, a Korean, and moved with him to North Korea in 1960. "It's been difficult to sleep, because I've been so excited at the prospect of seeing my family again."

The 15 women are among the 1,800 Japanese women who moved to North Korea with their Korean husbands, mainly between 1959 and 1963.

Some were never heard from again, because North Korea refused to let them leave the country and did not usually let the relatives of the women into North Korea. Even correspondence has been tightly restricted.

The plight of these women has been a sore point in relations between North Korea and Japan, which have no diplomatic ties, and now they are being used as a bargaining chip.

The unofficial arrangement seems to be that North Korea will let some of the wives return to Japan, at least for temporary visits, while Japan will resume food aid to North Korea.

Japan has been grudging in providing food to North Korea, where there are widespread reports of malnutrition, in part because of domestic ill feeling toward the belligerent, Communist North Korean government. Some officials hope that the visit by the wives will break the deadlock and stimulate a broader dialogue between the countries, eventually leading to normalization of relations.

A nine-member delegation from Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party and its parliamentary allies is to visit North Korea from Tuesday to Friday for talks with North Korean officials, in another sign that a broader dialogue may be beginning.

The home visit by the Japanese wives could turn into a diplomatic fiasco if some of the women refuse to go back to North Korea at the end of the week. But they seem to have been carefully picked, and their husbands and families remain behind in North Korea.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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