Japan on Wednesday again threatened to impose economic sanctions on North Korea after the reclusive state formally dismissed Tokyo’s protest against its probe into the fate of 10 missing Japanese.

But it remains to be seen whether Japan will actually impose the sanctions, particularly as optimism is growing that six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program might resume as early as next month.

The government will likely be caught in the middle between public pressure to impose economic sanctions and calls from members of the six-way framework, including the United States, to avoid giving North Korea any further reason to postpone the talks.

On Wednesday afternoon, officials at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing submitted a memorandum to their Japanese counterparts. The contents of the document were revealed Monday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

In the document, North Korea accused Japan of fabricating the outcome of DNA tests that found that cremated remains said by North Korea to be those of abductee Megumi Yokota in fact belonged to somebody else. Yokota was kidnapped to the North in 1977 at the age of 13. Pyongyang says she committed suicide in 1994.

Pyongyang has charged that Tokyo deliberately created an incident to isolate North Korea from the international community.

Japan lodged a protest last month that the latest report provided by Pyongyang detailing the fate of the 10 Japanese is not credible. North Korea has admitted to kidnapping eight of the 10 Japanese but says they have died. It says the other two never entered the country.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima expressed regret over North Korea’s response, suggesting that the government would consider specific steps toward sanctions.

“We have no choice but to take severe steps,” he said in a statement. “We will consider specific details of what is to be done.” The government has stated in the past that when it refers to “severe steps,” economic sanctions are among the options.

A top Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would consult with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi after the document has been examined.

Another senior government official said the imposition of economic sanctions is ultimately Koizumi’s decision. Koizumi is apparently reluctant to do so.

The official said that the cooperation of other countries would be necessary for such sanctions to be effective.

Economic sanctions would include a ban on both cash remittances to North Korea and on entry to Japanese ports by North Korean ships.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il promised during a summit with Koizumi in May to launch a fresh investigation into the fates of the 10 missing Japanese believed abducted to the North in the 1970s and 1980s.

During diplomatic talks in November, North Korea gave a Japanese delegation what it claimed were Yokota’s cremated remains. But a DNA test by Japan proved otherwise.

Restart food aid: U.N.

A senior official of the World Food Program said Wednesday that the U.N. food agency hopes Japan will restart food aid to North Korea after improving bilateral relations with the country.

The WFP is hoping to see Japan “once again in a position to provide the extraordinary level of assistance” to North Korea after “the relationship on this particular issue” improves, John Powell, deputy executive director of the WFP’s Fundraising and Communications Department, told reporters.

Powell, visiting Japan for talks with Japanese companies over the WFP’s activities, was referring to the strained ties between Japan and North Korea due to the North’s past abductions of Japanese citizens.

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