Japan's Cabinet decided yesterday to close the country's ports to North Korean ships and ban trade with the communist state in the toughest response yet by any nation to the North's claimed nuclear test, a Cabinet official said.
North Korea had threatened to retaliate if Japan went ahead with the measures, decided by its top security panel on Wednesday but largely symbolic given the lack of strong economic ties between the two neighbors.
"The government decided to block all North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports from Oct. 14 to April 13 next year and also to ban all imports from North Korea for the same period," Economics Minister Hiroko Ota told a news conference.
The steps, adding to sanctions Tokyo had already imposed following North Korea's ballistic missile tests in July, also include prohibiting the entry of North Korean nationals except those living in Japan.
"These actions by North Korea are a grave threat to the peace and security of our country and international society and can never be permitted," Finance Minister Koji Omi said.
On Thursday, Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted Song Il-ho, North Korea's ambassador in charge of diplomatic normalization talks with Japan, as saying that Pyongyang would take "strong countermeasures" if Japan went ahead with sanctions.
"We will take strong countermeasures. The specific contents will become clear if you keep watching. We never speak empty words," Kyodo quoted Song as saying in a report from Pyongyang.
Commenting on that threat, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a separate news conference: "It is the government's responsibility to ensure the peace and safety of the country and its people, and we will firmly do what is needed for that."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that Tokyo will consider further steps depending on North Korea's future behavior and developments in the international community -- a reference to a possible UN Security Council resolution urging punitive action against Pyongyang.
Japan's total trade with North Korea amounted to about US$180 million last year, about half the figure in 2002.
Trade is dwindling further this year, according to Finance Ministry data.
Coal and matsutake mushrooms top the list of Japan's imports from North Korea, while cars, trucks and buses account for a large proportion of Japan's exports to the isolated country.
North Korean ships, many loaded with used refrigerators and bicycles, were preparing to leave Japanese ports yesterday.
There were 22 North Korean ships in four ports, Kyodo news agency said.