TOKYO: 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 were alive.
Japan 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 Japanese authorities. It will also allow port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes.
The sanctions are separate from those imposed by Japan and other UN members after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 that prohibit UN members from arms trade with Pyongyang and from financial transactions that facilitate such trade.
“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. “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 towards 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 programmes.
Abe said the government had determined that North Korea took an unprecedented step in establishing a new entity to investigate all Japanese nationals involved.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, however, told reporters separately that Abe was not considering a visit to Pyongyang in the autumn, as some media have speculated.
The Nikkei business daily 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. Suga however said the government had not received any report of such a list.
The lifting of the sanctions are to be formalised by the cabinet today.
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 actions 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,” the South Korean foreign ministry said.
“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 State Department official, said in an e-mail. Reuters