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The government’s decision last week to lift the ban on chartered flights between Japan and North Korea comes amid an easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The ban was part of the economic sanctions that Tokyo imposed in August last year to protest the test-firing of a Taepodong ballistic missile.

Japan took this step in response to a North Korean pledge to suspend the scheduled launch of an advanced version of the missile. The United States had already lifted some of the sanctions it imposed after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

These moves are welcome. Japan, along with other nations involved, should seize the opportunity to begin improving relations with the North Koreans. The resumption of chartered flights, however, is only the first step in this direction. There are still many obstacles that must be cleared.

In last year’s missile test, a part of the North Korean multistage rocket flew over the Japanese archipelago and fell into the Pacific off northern Japan. The incident surprised and angered the Japanese people, who interpreted it as a “new threat” from Pyongyang. The government immediately imposed a string of sanctions: suspension of normalization talks, a freeze on food aid, a halt to financial assistance to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization and the ban on chartered flights.

Assistance to KEDO, the international consortium for building commercial light-water reactors in North Korea in exchange for its giving up the nuclear-weapons program, was resumed last year at the request of the U.S. and other nations, which maintained that a cutoff in aid could give Pyongyang an excuse to proceed with its nuclear adventure. But the other sanctions stayed in force. In the meantime, Tokyo exerted the utmost effort to prevent another missile launch.

The ice was broken in September at the meeting of U.S. and North Korean officials that led to an easing of U.S. sanctions. North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, made it clear that Pyongyang would suspend missile testing while U.S.-North Korean talks were under way.

With those talks producing some positive results, the Japanese government started looking for an appropriate time to ease its own remaining sanctions. The U.S.-North Korean talks scheduled for Nov. 15 in Berlin, in addition to a U.S. request for fresh Japanese action to elicit a positive response from Pyongyang, apparently have prompted Tokyo to resume chartered flights.

However, diplomacy with North Korea warrants no optimism. The pledge to suspend the missile launch is good only for the duration of U.S.-North Korean talks. There are no guarantees that Pyongyang will abandon for good its ambitions to develop and deploy missiles.

The new U.S. policy toward North Korea worked out by former Defense Secretary William Perry, now Washington’s point man for Pyongyang, calls for a “comprehensive and integrated approach.” As stated in Perry’s policy review, easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula requires North Korea to call a complete and permanent halt to its missile and nuclear-weapons program.

The partial lifting of Japanese sanctions reflects a sense of uncertainty over what Pyongyang is up to. Consequently, the decision to remove the remaining sanctions depends on what Pyongyang does in the future. The Japanese government, working closely with Washington and Seoul, should continue efforts to extract further concessions from the North.

In Japan’s case, North Korea’s suspected role in the abductions of Japanese citizens remains a major stumbling block in its efforts to mend ties with that country. Those incidents, along with the intrusion into Japan’s territorial waters of unidentified ships — believed to be spy boats from North Korea — have hardened Japanese feelings. These issues must be taken into account before the remaining sanctions can be lifted.

The continued absence of normal relations between Japan and North Korea is undesirable, not only for the two nations but also for the prospect of regional stability. Efforts must therefore be continued to resume talks designed to establish diplomatic relations, despite wide differences between the two governments. Pyongyang has expressed a willingness to talk on condition that Japan apologize and compensate for its past actions. Meanwhile, in mid-October, diplomats from the two sides made unofficial contacts in Singapore to sound out each other’s intentions. It is hoped that these exploratory moves will lead to the reopening of normalization talks. Obstacles can be removed only through talks.

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