Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may make a rare visit to North Korea, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said days after Tokyo reached a deal with Pyongyang to reopen the probe into Japanese citizens kidnapped by spies in the 1970s and 1980s.
Such a visit would be controversial, especially in South Korea and the United States, which have led the charge to further isolate the North over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
Only Junichiro Koizumi has ever visited the secretive state as a Japanese prime minister, in 2002 and 2004, in a futile effort to normalize bilateral ties. Tokyo and Pyongyang have no formal diplomatic ties, partly because of what Japan says is the North’s unwillingness to come clean over the abductions.
But in a breakthrough last week, Pyongyang agreed to investigate the fate of the missing abductees. In exchange, Tokyo will ease some of the unilateral sanctions it has imposed on the isolated state.
Japan agreed to a North Korean request for food and medical supplies during talks last week in Sweden but said the aid would be delivered through nongovernmental or private sector organizations, a government source said on Tuesday.
Pyongyang asked for rice and medicine. Tokyo stopped short of promising direct government aid because of generally anti-North Korean public sentiment over the abductions, the source said.
Nevertheless, Japan’s response was aimed at encouraging the unpredictable communist nation to fulfill its promise to reinvestigate the abductions. It said the aid would arrive after Japan detects tangible progress, the source said.
“We must think constantly what would be the most effective response and method in order to bring results,” Kishida told a Diet committee Tuesday. “In doing so, we will consider (Abe) making a visit to North Korea.”
Kishida noted that the government needs to act swiftly as the families of the kidnap victims are growing older, but he said nothing has been decided about a possible visit to Pyongyang by the prime minister.
Abe stopped short of confirming if he would visit Pyongyang when the negotiations reach a decisive stage. “It is premature at the moment to prejudge how the matter will develop hereafter,” he told reporters when asked if he had such a visit in mind. “We’d like to do our utmost to have the North Korean side deliver on their promise.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said over the weekend that Japan will send officials to North Korea to monitor the probe.
North Korea admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese as part of a scheme to train its spies in local customs and language. The admission was made when Koizumi traveled to Pyongyang to hold a historic summit with supreme leader Kim Jong Il in 2002.
Five of the abductees returned home, but Pyongyang said that eight had died, without producing credible evidence, provoking an uproar in Japan, where there are suspicions the actual number of abductees could be much higher than 13.
The issue is a highly emotive one that colors all of Japan’s dealings with North Korea. However, the international community, led by the United States, is primarily focused on ridding the unpredictable regime of its ballistic missiles and its nuclear program
The Stockholm accord requires the North to investigate what happened to 12 Japanese nationals whom Tokyo says are among 17 Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents. In 2008, Pyongyang promised to investigate the other alleged abductions but later reneged on its pledge.
Following the agreement in Sweden, the North said it would set up a new investigatory team by mid-June. Once the reinvestigation is underway, Japan said it will ease certain sanctions on the North, including travel restrictions.
That may include Tokyo lifting its ban on North Korean vessels from Japanese ports, including the Mangyongbong-92 passenger and cargo ferry. If the ban is lifted, the source suggested North Korean vessels might be free to arrive as early as July.
The Mangyongbong-92 was banned from Japan in the wake of Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launches and its first nuclear test, in 2006.
If a North Korean vessel were allowed to enter a Japanese port, Pyongyang could send goods to Japan while officials from Chongryon, the pro-North Korea General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, might be free to travel to the North. However, Japan would maintain strict import and export regulations, and would bolster customs checks to intercept items intended for purposes other than humanitarian aid, the source said.
Transport minister Akihiro Ota said at a news conference Friday that Japan will lift its blockade against the Mangyongbong-92 on humanitarian grounds, to allow it to bring medicine.
In 2004, Japan shipped a portion of the 250,000 tons of food aid it had pledged to North Korea, but the shipments ground to a halt amid the row over Pyongyang’s handling of the abductions issue. The shipments remain suspended.
A Foreign Ministry official said if sanctions are eased, once the reinvestigation begins, they would not be eased so much as to allow North Korea substantive economic benefits.