Pyongyang to reopen abduction probe

Tokyo agrees to reciprocate by easing economic sanctions

by Reiji Yoshida and Masami Ito

Pyongyang has promised to reopen its investigation into the missing Japanese its spies abducted, and Tokyo will partially lift economic sanctions in response.

The announcement was made Friday by Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, who said, however, that Pyongyang’s new promise is “a small step” and Tokyo will only lift the ban on chartered flights and trips between the two countries, including port calls by ships carrying humanitarian aid from private entities.

The North is also willing to hand over one of the four surviving Japanese leftist radicals who hijacked a Japan Airlines jet to Pyongyang in 1970 and two of the radicals’ wives.

The two wives and the hijacker are on Japan’s most-wanted list for allegedly helping North Korea’s agents abduct some of the Japanese.

Japan expanded economic sanctions against the North after Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006. The sanctions ban all imports from North Korea and freeze bank accounts suspected of being used to help fund the North’s development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

“(The North) has made a small step, so we will make a small step, too,” Komura said after discussing the issue with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

“With no (rewards), we can have no discussion or negotiations,” Fukuda told reporters Friday evening. “We now stand in the entrance to the negotiation process.”

Pyongyang had claimed that all the missing Japanese listed by Tokyo as having been kidnapped — except for five who were allowed to return to Japan in 2002 — either died in the country or never entered in the first place.

The North’s insistence that the abduction issue was settled has foreclosed on any chance to normalize diplomatic ties.

Senior diplomats from both countries met Wednesday and Thursday in Beijing, with the United States and China also urging Pyongyang to resume talks about the abduction issue with Tokyo.

The U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan have jointly been holding talks with the North and pressuring Pyongyang to terminate its nuclear weapons program in return for economic assistance to the reclusive state.

But Japan has made resolving the abduction issue a prerequisite for extending any assistance to the North.

If the North fulfills its promise to end its atomic weapons program in a verifiable way, Japan would be asked by the other five states to shoulder much of the burden of assisting the North.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said a mere promise to resume the probe is not enough for Japan to provide economic assistance, whether that be humanitarian aid or the energy assistance the North has demanded in the six-party talks.

“North Korea has changed its position that the abduction issue has been already settled,” Machimura told reporters later in the day, calling it “a certain progress” toward resolving the issue.

“But that progress is not enough to create an environment where we can immediately participate in economic and energy cooperation,” Machimura said.

The North has strongly demanded that the U.S. remove Pyongyang from its list of terrorist states. Tokyo meanwhile has urged Washington not to do so, calling abduction a form of terrorism.

Asked if the North should be delisted, given its new promise, Machimura said that is an issue for the U.S. to handle.

“Basically, the judgment will depend on whether the situation satisfies U.S. laws,” Machimura said. “We don’t know how far we can get involved in that (decision-making) process.”

Government officials met with relatives of the still unaccounted-for abductees later the day.

Most of them appeared skeptical about the North’s promise to reopen the probe.

Those who spoke during the meeting argued it is premature to lift economic sanctions against the North, said Shigeo Iizuka, who represents an association of the relatives.

“What we are saying is sanctions should be lifted only after the North starts showing actual results,” Iizuka told reporters.

The relatives demanded that the North clarify what it will investigate, Iizuka said.

But separately, a senior Foreign Ministry official argued Friday that the government should give something in return for the North’s pledge to relaunch the probe.

“In addition, the bans to be lifted are very limited,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official also said pressure from the U.S. on the North is probably the key factor that prompted Pyongyang to reopen the investigation.