Japan has told North Korea it is considering extending unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang beyond April, sources said Thursday, a move apparently aimed at breaking an impasse over stalled talks on the abduction issue.
The sources said the Japanese government is making arrangements to extend the sanctions, possibly for two years, and a Cabinet decision could be made in April unless substantial progress is made on the issue, which involves resolving questions about several Japanese kidnapped by the North decades ago.
The sanctions set to expire in April include a total ban on exports and imports.
The move has been studied as aging relatives of the victims voice frustration with the slow progress since North Korea promised last May to reinvestigate the fate of those Japanese, in return for the lifting of some of the sanctions.
Japan partially lifted sanctions in July, including restrictions on travel between the two countries, as Pyongyang launched what it called a special investigation committee to conduct an all-inclusive and comprehensive probe into all Japanese residing in the North, including those abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
But tangible progress has yet to be made, and the agreed deadline for the reinvestigation is approaching this summer. By conveying the possibility of extending the remaining sanctions, Tokyo is apparently hoping to achieve a breakthrough in the talks.
The sources said the Japanese government is believed to have explained its stance to North Korea through diplomatic channels and during an informal meeting in late January in Shanghai, which was attended by Junichi Ihara, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry, and senior officials of North Korea’s secret police organ directly linked with leader Kim Jong Un.
Since the two countries agreed last May that Japan will ease its sanctions depending on progress made by the reinvestigation, Tokyo may refrain from extending some of the remaining sanctions if Pyongyang discloses information on the whereabouts of the abductees.
Japan officially lists 17 nationals as abductees but suspects North Korea’s involvement in hundreds of other disappearances.
Five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002. Pyongyang has maintained that of the remaining 12, eight died and four others never entered the country.
The abduction issue remains a major impediment to normalizing ties between the two countries. Japan imposed a set of unilateral sanctions on North Korea following missile tests by Pyongyang in 2006 and has extended them several times, in addition to sanctions imposed in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Japanese sanctions still in place include a ban on the entry of North Korean-registered ships, including the Mangyongbong-92, a passenger-cargo ferry, into Japanese ports except for humanitarian purposes.
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