TOKYO: Tokyo said Thursday it would ease sanctions against North Korea if the secretive state delivers on a pledge to reinvestigate the cases of Japanese nationals kidnapped to train spies.
The announcement, a major breakthrough in a very strained relationship, comes after three days of talks between the two sides in Sweden, and marks the most positive engagement between Pyongyang and the outside world in many months.
"As a result of the Japan-North Korea talks, the North Korean side promised to the Japanese side that it will make a comprehensive and thorough investigation" into confirmed and suspected abductions, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.
"In keeping with the promise, it will set up a special commission for the investigation."
In return, Tokyo has agreed to ease some of the stinging sanctions it has levelled at the unpredictable regime over years of mistrust, and dangled the prospect of some much-needed aided.
"Japan has decided to lift special restrictions on travel by people, reporting requirements on remittances... as well as the ban on North Korea-registered vessels entering Japanese ports for humanitarian purposes," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
The unilateral sanctions are in addition to United Nations strictures placed on Pyongyang, which are unaffected.
"Japan will study the possibility of extending humanitarian assistance to North Korea at an appropriate time from a humanitarian standpoint," a written statement distributed to reporters said.
North Korea outraged Japan when it admitted more than a decade ago that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to tutor its spies in Japanese language and customs.
Five of the abductees were allowed to return to Japan but Pyongyang has insisted, without producing solid evidence, that the eight others are dead.
The subject is a highly-charged one in Japan, where there are suspicions that dozens or perhaps even hundreds of other people were taken.
"Our mission will never end until the day comes when families of all abduction victims are able to embrace their children with their own arms," Abe said.
"We have tackled the problem with this determination and we hope that this will be the first step toward an overall solution."
Abe has spent considerable energy on the issue -- one he called "a top priority" -- since coming to power in late 2012, aware that a victory would give him enormous domestic capital.
However, Toshio Miyatsuka, an expert on North Korean issues at Yamanashi Gakuin University, warned that a win was far from in the bag.
"This is a risky gamble as the abduction issue is a hard one to resolve in a way that everyone will find satisfactory, and North Korea is an unpredictable partner," he told AFP.
"Accords are different from results. They are just standing on the starting line. A rough road lies ahead."
While relations with South Korea remain testy -- Pyongyang has unleashed torrents of invective against its neighbour -- its attitude towards Japan has softened in recent months.
A conciliatory dispatch by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang's channel of communication with the outside, stressed the gear shift in ties.
"The Japanese side re-clarified its will to settle its inglorious past, solve the pending issues and normalise the relations together with the DPRK (North Korean) side," the report said.
"The DPRK side agreed to simultaneously conduct a comprehensive survey of all Japanese including the remains and graves of Japanese, remaining Japanese, Japanese spouses, victims of abduction and missing persons," KCNA said.
The dispatch added the North would take "necessary measures" to return any remains to Japan.
Pyongyang's apparent show of goodwill comes a week after South Korea accused its northern neighbour of firing shells at one of its warships, setting off a fresh diplomatic row.
Cross-border tensions have been high for months with North Korea saying in April it was ready for "full-scale nuclear war" as it launched a vicious personal attack on South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, calling her a "prostitute" in thrall to a visiting US President Barack Obama.
There are fears that North Korea is preparing a fourth nuclear test -- despite bans by the United Nations and tightened international sanctions -- with recent satellite images showing increased activity at its main atomic test site.
And it was possible, Miyatsuka warned, that the agreement with Tokyo could be simply a strategic convenience for North Korea.
"The accord is part of its strategy to get sanctions lifted and disturb relations among Japan, South Korea and the United States," he said. (AFP)