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Olympics: IOC feels Japan's 'pain' over N. Korea but must stay neutral

International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President John Coates, left, speaks as Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, listens during their joint press conference in Tokyo on April 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A leading member of the International Olympic Committee said Tuesday the organization must remain neutral on the subject of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, with the country set to be invited to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

    John Coates, chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for Tokyo, said he understands the "terrible pain" of those affected by the abductions in the 1970s and 1980s.

    The Australian was speaking at a press conference at the end of the latest project review into games preparations, shortly before Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said the abduction issue holds a "special sentiment that lingers in hearts and minds of Japanese people."

    After visiting North Korea last month, IOC President Thomas Bach said the country will "definitely" take part in the Tokyo Olympics and the Beijing Winter Games in 2022, but enthusiasm has been muted in Japan where the North's nuclear and missile programs, in addition to the abduction issue, weigh heavily.

    Japan officially lists 17 citizens as abduction victims and suspects North Korea's involvement in many more disappearances. While five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002, Pyongyang maintains eight have died and the other four never entered the country.

    "The IOC's position is one of political neutrality and will remain that," Coates said. "The IOC issues invitations to participate in Olympic Games. Obviously, I have read about the particular issue for Japan about North Korean participation here, and personally I understand the terrible pain those who were taken away and the families who were left behind have experienced."

    "I am also trying to understand the burden the prime minister so obviously feels about this and I have observed these are matters he is continuing to pursue -- the return of abducted Japanese, and other issues such as demilitarization and denuclearization -- but this is not something the IOC will or should become involved in."

    Coates said that under IOC procedures host governments had an obligation to allow free access to all sporting delegations accredited for the games, but stressed that which political leaders are invited is "absolutely the prerogative of the national government."

    Mori, who said he wanted to speak from the heart, said, "In the past human rights were violated in peaceful times...Japanese citizens were abducted, and this is a special sentiment that lingers in hearts and minds of Japanese people, and I pray for resolution of this matter."

    The former Japanese prime minister praised efforts to bring North and South Korea together at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February, saying, "Everybody wants peace, everybody wants this ideal and we must make efforts to that end."

    But he added that "Japan is close to the Korean Peninsula and we are living under the threat of nuclear weapons, and in this context, Thomas Bach took the initiative and the IOC have worked so work hard for peace, and I hope their efforts will not be in vain."

    The two-day project review comprised meetings on all areas of games preparations, but Tokyo 2020's relations with international sports governing bodies sat high on the agenda after they unleashed stinging criticism last week.

    World Sailing, which claimed the organizing committee is at least one year behind, led 10 governing bodies at the SportAccord Convention in Bangkok in complaining about various planning issues.

    Mori said Tuesday he recognized that the organizing committee needed "a system where we can speedily respond" to sports federations' concerns, adding, "We will monitor our system and solidly progress."

    Coates echoed a warning he made in his opening remarks on Monday, saying, "It is important to provide answers and be forthright. This might not always be in your nature, but questions will increasingly come. You have taken that on board and it will be the case I'm sure."

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