Tokyo and Pyongyang reach deal on abductees

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Tokyo and Pyongyang reach deal on abductees

Japan has begun to review reducing some of its sanctions on North Korea, Japanese media reported yesterday, after Pyongyang indicated it was willing to reinvestigate abductions of Japanese in the past.

An agreement was reached in recent closed-door, unofficial negotiations between North Korea and Japan held in Shanghai, according to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. They took place on April 5 and 6, the paper said, shortly after official bilateral government talks between the two countries in Beijing on March 30 and 31.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a key item on the agenda for the informal Red Cross talks in Shenyang early last month. The two countries held their first high-level governmental talks in more than a year in Beijing at the end of March led by Song Il-ho, North Korea’s top envoy handling relations with Japan, and his Japanese counterpart Junichi Ihara, chief of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of its Foreign Ministry. The last such talks were in November 2012 in Mongolia.

Tokyo and Pyongyang have been at a stalemate on the abduction issue since North Korea admitted in 2003 to having abducted 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. It returned five of them. Japan officially claims that 17 of its nationals were abducted.

North Korea has held the position that the abduction issue was closed. But in the informal meetings in Shanghai, Pyongyang indicated it is open to re-examining the abduction issue at the request of Japan, according to the report.

In return, North Korea requested Japan reduce its unilateral sanctions, such as lifting travel bans on officials of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, a pro-Pyongyang organization with strong ties with North Korea. Because Japan and North Korea have no official diplomatic ties, the organization often acts as a de facto embassy in Tokyo.

With the travel bans in place, if the Chongryon’s top officials visit North Korea, they may be blocked from returning to Japan. This ban can also block the flow of cash to North Korea from the group. The Tokyo District Court last month authorized the sale of the association’s headquarters building, which had been put up for auction due to financial problems.

The Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cabinet has said that if North Korea cooperated on the issue, Tokyo would be willing to ease sanctions gradually.

“If Japan eases sanctions in order for progress on the abduction issue,” Nikkei reported, “this can impact its partnership with the U.S. and South Korea, who maintain a firm posture on the nuclear and missile problems of North Korea.”

It further speculated that ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to both Seoul and Tokyo, “it may be North Korea’s intention to disturb the South Korea, U.S. and Japan alliance,” which was emphasized in the three country’s leaders’ trilateral summit in The Hague last month.


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