Japan decided yesterday to ease some sanctions on North Korea in return for its reopening of a probe into the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by the reclusive state decades ago, as a fresh report emerged that some of them are still alive.
Japan will lift travel curbs to and from North Korea, and end restrictions on the amount of money that can be sent or taken to the impoverished North without notifying Japanese authorities. It will also allow port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes.
“This is just a start,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made the fate of the abductees a focus of his political career, told reporters. “We will make every effort to achieve a complete resolution of this issue.”
Easing the sanctions will likely have only a minimal economic impact, but it could be a first step toward repairing long-chilled ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang. The decision comes at a time of persistent international concern about the volatile North’s nuclear and missile programs.
Abe said the government had determined that North Korea took an unprecedented step in establishing a new entity to investigate all Japanese nationals involved.
However, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters separately that Abe was not considering a visit to Pyongyang in the autumn, as some media have speculated.
The Nikkei Shimbun said yesterday that North Korea had handed Japan the names of at least 10 of its nationals said to be living in that country, including some of those believed to have been abducted.
Proof that some of the missing Japanese are alive would almost certainly boost Abe’s popularity. However, Suga said the government had not received any report of such a list.
Tokyo will analyze the list to see if any names match those of reported abductees and Pyongyang is expected use the list to confirm their whereabouts, the daily said.
Japan has stressed that its decision does not mean it is out of step with the US and South Korea on dealing with Pyongyang, but some analysts said cracks are starting to show.
“It seems to me that it’s going to become harder and harder for the US to pretend that everything is fine in terms of coordination on DPRK [North Korea] policy as Japan moves down this road,” Joel Wit, a former US Department of State official and visiting fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said in an e-mail.
North Korea agreed in May to reopen the probe into the status of Japanese abductees, who were taken in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies. In return, Japan promised to lift some of its sanctions when the investigation was launched.
However, Pyongyang has a history of reneging on deals. It admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens, and five abductees and their families later returned to Japan.
North Korea said the remaining eight were dead and that the issue was closed, but Japan pressed for more information about their fate and others that Tokyo believes were also kidnapped.
In 2008, Pyongyang promised to reopen the probe of Japanese abduction victims, but it never followed through. It also reneged on promises made in multilateral talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program and declared the negotiations had ended.
Japanese diplomats met their North Korean counterparts in Beijing on Tuesday to assess Pyongyang’s latest plan.