Japan will allow the North Korean women’s soccer team to travel to Osaka for the final Asian qualifying round for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this summer, according to a senior government official.
The team’s arrival will be an exception to new sanctions that ban the entry of North Korean nationals.
The final Olympic qualifiers for women’s soccer will take place between Feb. 29 and March 9 in Osaka, with six teams, including Japan, North Korea, South Korea and China, set to compete.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined Monday to comment on the matter, telling reporters the government will make a decision only when the players apply for visas.
But Suga pointed out that Japan has in the past allowed soccer and table tennis players from North Korea to enter Japan despite sanctions against Pyongyang.
“At any rate, we’ll consider what we will do when applications for entry are filed,” he said.
Last week, the government announced a set of sanctions on North Korea for launching a long-range ballistic missile on Feb. 7. The sanctions were also seen as punishing North Korea for its Jan. 6 nuclear test.
The sanctions include a wide-ranging ban on North Korean nationals traveling to Japan. However, there are exceptions.
“People related to culture and sports should be treated differently,” the senior government official said, saying nations can still allow athletes from “third-party countries” to compete in international competitions.
On Friday, North Korea said it was scrapping an investigation into the fates of Japanese nationals abducted and taken there decades ago. This came in retaliation to the Japanese sanctions.
By allowing the North Korean soccer players to enter Japan, the government appears to be offering an olive branch to Pyongyang in a bid to keep the abduction issue alive.
In a related move, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda said Sunday on TV that the government “is ready to continue talks” with North Korea on the abduction issue, adding that the government will “keep the door open.”
“We want to improve the situation by using international pressure,” he said, referring to Pyongyang’s declaration that it was closing the book on the reinvestigation begun in July 2014.