Japan said yesterday it will maintain sanctions on North Korea until Pyongyang gives up nuclear weapons development, despite its willingness to resume disarmament talks.
"The most important thing is that North Korea abandon all nuclear development" in accordance with UN Security Council demands, said chief Cabinet secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the government's top spokesman.
"Until we know whether this will be carried out, we will calmly carry out what we have decided,'' he said, referring to sanctions imposed after the North's Oct. 9 nuclear test.
North Korea announced earlier yesterday that it would return to the six-party talks on its nuclear disarmament. The talks have been stalled for a year.
Later in the day South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said in Moscow that the talks could resume this month, Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
The talks "may resume already in November, by the end of December at the latest," Ban said, according to ITAR-Tass.
Ban hailed Pyongyang's move as an "encouraging signal."
"I hope that we will find a solution to the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula," he was quoted by ITAR-Tass as saying.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Ban during their Kremlin meeting earlier yesterday that Moscow was closely following the developments around the North's nuclear program, before reporters were whisked out of the room.
The Russian Foreign Ministry welcomed North Korea's announcement and called for the negotiations to resume as soon as possible. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow expects the talks to start shortly, adding that the date was still being discussed.
Japanese officials had also welcomed the North's announcement yesterday, but they said it was far from assured that the renewal of the talks would lead to the goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
"This is truly pleasing," Foreign Minister Taro Aso told parliament.
"However, given that we still don't know what conditions are involved, it's not a matter where we can now be saying `great, great, now we can celebrate,'" he said.
Japan, which is within reach of North Korean missiles, has taken a hard-line against the reclusive regime since the nuclear test, banning all trade with Pyongyang, barring North Korean ships from its ports and taking other punitive measures.
Over the past year, North Korea has refused to resume the talks, demanding that the US first lift financial sanctions aimed at the North's alleged money laundering and counterfeiting.
Japan's approach toward North Korea has hardened with the election in September of Shinzo Abe as prime minister.
Abe has long been a champion of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2002, he was a lead negotiator in winning the release of five of the victims. Pyongyang has admitted kidnapping eight others, but has said they are dead.
Human rights activists in Tokyo said the abduction issue is just one of several North Korean abuses that is being overshadowed by the nuclear standoff.