Japan, North reach an accord on abductees

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Japan, North reach an accord on abductees

Seoul and Washington responded with caution to Japan and North Korea’s agreement to open a new investigation into the decades-long issue of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang.

The breakthrough between Tokyo and Pyongyang comes amid a stalemate in efforts to denuclearize the North as the United States plans to step up sanctions on the regime.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held an unexpected press conference Thursday evening to announce that Pyongyang vowed a “comprehensive full-scale investigation into tracking missing Japanese nationals” abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

He added North Korea promised a special committee would be set up to investigate abducted Japanese nationals, including those never admitted by Pyongyang. Abe vowed to resolve the abductee issue as one of his key campaign pledges.

Japan will start to lift some of the sanctions it imposed on North Korea over the abduction issue once the special committee is set up, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman.

Suga said that Tokyo could lift restrictions on travel, remittances to North Korea and an embargo on the entry into Japanese ports of North Korea-flagged ships on humanitarian missions.

Japan might also consider providing humanitarian assistance to Pyongyang at an “appropriate time,” depending on the results of the investigation, said Suga.

Pyongyang is expected to also conduct an investigation to look for bones of Japanese who died toward the end of World War II and its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Other sanctions can include 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 acts as a de facto embassy in Tokyo.

Senior Japanese and North Korean foreign affairs officials held three-day talks in Stockholm that concluded Wednesday, engaging in what can be considered mutually-benefited negotiations, following up on official bilateral governmental talks in Beijing on March 30 and 31.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency also confirmed Japan’s announcement and indicated that if and when surviving abductees are found, the two sides agreed to “take the necessary measures in the direction of sending them back to Japan.”

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Seoul received notification about the agreement through diplomatic channels shortly before Abe’s announcement Thursday.

“We understand Japan’s position on the abductee issue,” it added, urging close cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Japan.

“Japan’s largest and most symbolic sanction on North Korea is the one banning the Mangyongbong ferry, and it appears that the agreement has not included anything about this,” said a South Korean foreign affairs official.

In 2006, Tokyo banned arrivals of North Korea’s Mangyongbong-92 ferry, which used to make regular trips between the two countries carrying people and also goods to trade. The foreign affairs official added that how the Tokyo-Pyongyang negotiations proceed will be watched closely.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki likewise said Thursday the U.S. was notified before the announcement and that it will “support Japanese efforts to resolve the abduction issues in a transparent manner.”

Tokyo and Pyongyang have been at a stalemate on the abduction issue since North Korea admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese nationals. North Korea returned five abductees and their families to Japan and said the remaining eight were dead. Previously, it held the position that the abduction issue was closed.

Tokyo claims that 17 of its nationals were abducted. In 2008, North Korea promised to open a reinvestigation of the abductions, which it didn’t follow through on.

“This agreement covers sanctions that Japan imposed on its own,” he said. “It is not related to UN sanctions.”

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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