Japan will 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.
Tokyo will lift travel curbs to and from North Korea and end restrictions on the amount of money that can be sent or brought to the impoverished North without notifying its authorities. It will also allow port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes.
“This is just a start,” prime minister Shinzo Abe, who has made the fate of the abductees a focus of his political career, told reporters yesterday. “We will make every effort to achieve a complete resolution of this issue.”
Easing the sanctions will probably have only a minimal economic impact, but it could be a first step towards repairing long-chilled ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
Said to have died is Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents on her way home from school in 1977, when she was 13. North Korea says she married a South Korean abductee and had a daughter before killing herself in 1994.
North Korea returned what it said were her remains in 2004 but DNA tests subsequently disputed that claim.
The decision comes at a time of persistent international concern about the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Mr Abe said the government had determined that North Korea took an unprecedented step in establishing a new entity to investigate all Japanese nationals involved.
The Nikkei business newspaper said yesterday that North Korea had handed Japan the names of at least ten of its nationals said to be living in that country, including some of those believed to have been abducted.
Japan has stressed that its decision does not mean it is out of step with the United States and South Korea on dealing with Pyongyang.
But Seoul – while expressing hope for an early resolution to the abductions issue – urged Japan to make sure that its steps were in line with international moves.
“This government wants to stress that … any action taken by the Japanese government related to this must be within the bounds that do not compromise the framework of international cooperation on the North Korean nuclear and missile issues such as between South Korea, the United States and Japan,” a spokesman for the South Korean foreign ministry said.
North Korea agreed in May to re-open the probe into the status of Japanese abductees, who were taken in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies.