In a potential breakthrough, Pyongyang has agreed to reinvestigate the fates of Japanese who vanished in North Korea, including those suspected of being abducted by North Korean agents, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday.
Tokyo will lift certain economic sanctions if Pyongyang keeps its promise, Japanese officials said. These include bans on Japan-North Korean trips and money transfers, and port calls by North Korea-registered ships visiting Japan for humanitarian purposes.
“(North Korea) has promised to carry out a comprehensive, full-scale investigation into missing Japanese people, including those who were possibly abducted” by North Korean spies in the 1970s and ’80s, Abe told reporters at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo.
“Complete settlement of the abduction issue is one of the important agenda goals of the Abe administration… I hope this will be the first step toward it,” Abe said.
Senior officials from Pyongyang and Tokyo held heated negotiations on the issue this week in Stockholm that resulted in written agreements, including the one to reopen the investigations into the abductees.
The North apparently decided to cooperate to ease its international isolation and perhaps win economic assistance from Japan.
According to the agreements, Pyongyang will launch a special committee that will have the power to conduct investigations into any organization in North Korea, and be obliged to report on the process and the results to Japan.
It will also conduct an investigation to look for the bones of Japanese who died in and around 1945 — the year when Japan lost the war and its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula ended — and any survivors who were left in areas that are now considered part of North Korea.
Tokyo claims that at least 17 Japanese were whisked away to the North. Five were returned to Japan in 2002, thanks to the diplomatic efforts of reformist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration, but Pyongyang claims the rest either died or never entered the North.
The bizarre and emotional stories of the abductees have kept them in the public spotlight, and retrieving them from the hermit country has been a priority in past administrations.
Abe’s tough nationalist diplomacy on the abduction issue vaulted him to his first, short-lived prime ministership in 2006.
Speaking before the TV cameras Thursday, Abe used his emotional rhetoric to emphasize his determination.
“Our mission will never end until the day comes when all of the family members of the abductees embrace their children,” Abe said.
Japanese officials, of course, remain cautious given Pyongyang’s notorious track record on promises, especially those made in exchange for economic aid.
In 2008, Pyongyang agreed to open an investigation into Japanese suspected of being North Korean abductees but later broke it.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga emphasized the sanctions will not be lifted until Tokyo confirms Pyongyang has started the reinvestigation.
According to the written agreements, Tokyo will “consider” providing humanitarian aid to North Korea “at an appropriate time.” But Suga stressed Japan will not provide aid unless the probes makes progress.
“Right now we don’t have any plan (to provide aid), and we will consider it after seeing how the investigation is going,” Suga said.
Still, both Abe and Suga looked eager to show off their progress, apparently mindful of the keen public interest in the issue.
“Now we have reached the starting line (of the reinvestigation). (Past administrations ) were unable to get here,” Suga said.