Japan Eases Sanctions After N. Korea Promises Abductee Probe

Japan will ease sanctions on North Korea after the isolated nation said it would start a new investigation into abductees and other Japanese living there.

A group of Japanese ministers agreed today to loosen the restrictive measures, and the cabinet will approve the move tomorrow, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the investigation team that North Korea will establish tomorrow was “different from those in the past.”

“Based on the principle of reciprocity, Japan will lift some of the measures we have been taking,” Abe said after the ministers’ meeting. “But this is just a start. I am determined to do all I can to reach a complete resolution.”

North Korea admitted in 2002 to abducting 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly to help train its spies. It returned five of them later that year, saying the others were dead. Abe has called the issue, which has long complicated Japan’s attempts to deal with the threats of North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear weapons tests, one of the most important for his administration.

North Korea has conducted three rounds of missile firings in the past week, including two overseen by leader Kim Jong Un, that have heightened tensions on the peninsula before talks today in Seoul between Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

South’s Reaction

“The timing of the announcement is bad news for South Korea, given that Japan is the weak link in the joint front against the threat of North Korea,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “North Korea is very aware that Japan is kind of isolated.”

Japan’s easing of sanctions should not damage cooperation among governments in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul for ending North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said today in an e-mailed statement.

At least 10 abductees are still living in North Korea, according to a list North Korean officials handed to Japanese counterparts at a meeting in Beijing on July 1, the Nikkei newspaper reported today, citing unnamed government officials. Japanese officials will check the list of names and life histories written in Korean against their own list of 860 known or suspected abductees, the Nikkei said.

Suga said today Japan received no list of survivors from North Korea, and Abe isn’t considering a visit to the country.

Lifting Restrictions

Sanctions to be eased include the lifting of reporting requirements for Japanese citizens taking more than 100,000 yen ($982) to North Korea, or wiring sums of more than 3 million yen there, the Nikkei reported. North Korean ships will be allowed to enter Japanese ports for humanitarian reasons, the paper said.

Japan will retain bans on charter flights, trade of goods and exports of nuclear and missile technology in line with United Nations resolutions, the Nikkei said. The North remains under a separate set of sanctions imposed by the U.N. for its three nuclear tests since 2006.

North Korean leader Kim will oversee his nation’s investigation, the Sankei newspaper reported today. Abe said today that “bodies capable of taking national decisions” will take the lead in the new investigation.

Today’s announcement comes days after Japan’s cabinet passed a resolution expanding the role of the military to include the defense of allies, reinterpreting the pacifist constitution in place for nearly 70 years.

Support for Abe’s cabinet fell after the resolution, according to Kyodo News survey, with a majority of respondents saying they opposed the reinterpretation of the top law.

“The Japanese government might have good reason for this story to happen now, given the negative reaction to collective self-defense,” Sophia’s Nakano said.