Japan will lift some of its unilateral economic sanctions on North Korea on Friday because of progress Pyongyang has made in setting up an “unprecedented” panel to investigate what happened to Japanese nationals kidnapped and taken there, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday.
It will ease restrictions on travel and the transfer of funds between Japan and North Korea. It will also allow North Korean ships to visit Japanese ports for “humanitarian purposes,” which could include the export of goods and medical supplies to North Korea.
“This is just a start” in solving the long-standing abduction issue, Abe told reporters Thursday at the prime minister’s office.
“We will further stretch ourselves and make the utmost effort to resolve” the abduction issue, Abe said.
Tokyo will uphold sanctions on Pyongyang imposed in line with United Nations resolutions. This more powerful set of penalties include a trade embargo, the freezing of North Korean assets, and barring North Korea’s Mangyongbong-92 ferry from Japanese ports. The ferry is believed to have engaged in illegal practices in the past, including smuggling high-tech devices for Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program.
Japan’s government says North Korean agents abducted at least 17 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 80s and took them to North Korea, although it believes the number could be much higher.
North Korea has returned to Japan only five of the individuals so far. It maintains that the rest either have died or never entered the country.
During talks in Beijing on Tuesday, the North promised to reopen an investigation into the alleged abductees by setting up a special investigation committee with around 30 members.
The committee will be chaired by an official from the powerful National Defense Commission, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
“We believe (the North) will put in place a system that can conduct effective inquiries” into the abduction issue, Suga told a news conference.
Later in the day, a senior Japanese government official said the committee’s chairman is believed to be close to North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un. This was a major factor in Tokyo’s decision to reward North Korea with a partial lifting of sanctions.
Tokyo and Pyongyang agreed that the committee should submit its first interim report to Japan in late summer or early fall, Suga said.
Meanwhile, Tokyo’s decision on sanctions could fuel fears overseas that it is breaking ranks with the international community and that its action will weaken collective pressure on Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
North Korea apparently recognizes that the abductions issue carries strong emotions among the Japanese population and is exploiting that, to its benefit.
Experts noted China, traditionally North Korea’s greatest ally and protector, is now deepening both economic and political ties with South Korea. They said Pyongyang might be trying to use improved ties with Japan to counter diplomatic power shifts elsewhere in the region.
Suga dismissed such concerns. He restated Japan’s intention to seek a simultaneous “comprehensive solution” of the abductions issue and concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program.
He denied an earlier report by Nikkei newspaper that North Korea has already submitted to Japan a list of more than ten Japanese nationals, possibly including abductees, who remain alive and continue to live there.
“I’ve never received a report like that, and I believe it’s impossible,” Suga told the news conference.
One reason why Japan is satisfied with the inquiry team is that it includes the Ministry of State Security, a secret-police department that reports directly to Kim, analysts said.
Hideshi Takesada, a Korean expert and professor at Takushoku University’s graduate school, described the ministry’s chief as Kim’s right hand — and since its deputy chief will be heading the panel he will bring it considerable power.
By contrast, a probe unit Pyongyang set up in 2004 was led by a senior official of the Ministry of People’s Security, a regular police agency, which lacked the authority needed to investigate every government department in the secretive state, experts said.
“Unlike its previous botched investigation, this time I can see North Korea’s intention to conduct a serious investigation because the deputy chief of the Ministry of State Security chairs the committee,” Takesada said.
Hajime Izumi, a Korea expert and professor at the University of Shizuoka, agreed, saying that the committee seems to have muscle.
However, considering that this is the same state that kidnapped Japanese citizens in the first place, it is too early to judge the North’s seriousness, he said.
“We don’t know if they really will conduct complete investigations at this moment because of their poor track record,” he said. “We can only pass judgment when the investigation is done.”
In 2004, at the time of last inquiry, North Korea handed over what it said were the cremated remains of abductee Megumi Yokota. However, DNA tests showed they were in fact the remains of someone else. In 2008, Pyongyang agreed to re-open the investigation but later reneged on the promise.
As for the partial economic sanctions Japan plans to lift Friday, the analysts said the move will do little to lift the North’s battered economy.
The relaxations omit North Korea’s main demands, such as port calls by the Mangyongbong-92 ferry and the use of the former de facto North Korean Embassy in Tokyo, said Takesada of Takushoku University.
Meanwhile, they said, Pyongyang’s ultimate goal is the normalization of Japan-North Korea diplomatic ties.
But in order to reach that, it needs to solve not only the abductions issue but also North Korea’s weapons programs, they said.
“North Korea may think it can normalize ties without making concessions on its missile and nuclear issues, but there is absolutely no way it can,” Izumi of Shizuoka University said.