NEW YORK KYODO – Japan’s sanctions against North Korea could be eased if Pyongyang deals squarely with the abduction issue, a Cabinet minister said Friday ahead of renewed intergovernmental talks next week.
“If North Korea shows sincere, positive moves toward resolving the abduction issue, it is possible (for Japan) to gradually lift its unilateral” sanctions, Keiji Furuya, minister in charge of dealing with the country’s past abductions of Japanese, told a news conference.
Furuya’s comments were toned down from his rhetoric of March 18, when he said Japan “would not even spend a penny on assistance” for North Korea or lift the sanctions unless the abduction victims are returned to Japan.
The two countries are set to resume formal talks Sunday in Beijing following a 16-month hiatus. The meeting will address “bilateral issues of concern,” most notably the kidnappings of Japanese by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. The dispute is the main hurdle that has prevented the two nations from normalizing diplomatic ties.
Any unilateral moves by Japan to soften its stance against North Korea would come in contrast to international pressure on the country over its nuclear and missile development programs in violation of U.N. resolutions. They could also raise the eyebrows of the United States, Japan’s main ally.
Japan has imposed sanctions since a missile launch by Pyongyang in July 2006, banning port calls by a vessel used to transport North Korean residents of Japan between the two countries as well as prohibiting North Korean officials from visiting Japan.
After Pyongyang test-fired more missiles amid a lack of progress on the abduction and nuclear issues, Tokyo took additional steps, expanding the port call ban to cover other North Korean vessels and blocking all trade between the countries. Analysts say the measures have hurt the already fragile North Korean economy.
Japan has also taken steps coordinated by the international community to punish North Korea.
Furuya said that whether Japan lifts its own sanctions “basically depends on negotiations,” suggesting Tokyo will only act in response to steps taken by North Korea to address the abductions. “We must make North Korea understand that it will become unable to stand unless it makes progress on the abduction issue,” he said.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida expressed hope that the intergovernmental talks, scheduled for Sunday and Monday in Beijing, will raise prospects for addressing the abduction, nuclear and missile issues comprehensively.
“We will make a response with patience,” Kishida said.
North Korea admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese nationals and later retuned five of them to Japan, claiming the remaining eight are dead.
‘Use talks productively’
Tokyo should use its talks with Pyongyang on the abduction issue to broach other human rights issues in North Korea, Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director at Amnesty International USA, said Thursday.
Jannuzi served for 15 years as policy director for East Asian and Pacific affairs for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and advised Secretary of State John Kerry when Kerry was a senator on the committee.
While expressing solidarity with relatives of abductees, Jannuzi said that Japan’s role in working for human rights in North Korea “has been held hostage politically for a long time to the abduction issue.”
The Japanese government “can be mindful of the suffering of the North Korean people at the hands of this government” while it works on the abduction issue, Jannuzi said.
He made the remarks after giving a talk at the Korea Society in Manhattan.