TOKYO - Japan plans to lift part of its sanctions against North Korea as their plans are making headway to reopen a probe into the fate of Japanese abductees in the communist country, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday.
At their talks in Stockholm in May, Tokyo agreed to relax entry bans for North Koreans and limits on the amount of money to be wired or carried into the communist country and allow port calls by North Korean vessels on humanitarian missions, upon the launch of the investigation.
The latest decision indicates that Pyongyang had shown sufficient willingness to follow through on the landmark agreement during a bilateral meeting on Tuesday in Beijing. They were led by Song Il-ho, the North Korean ambassador in charge of talks to normalize relations with Japan, and Junichi Ihara, director general for Asian and Oceanian affairs at Tokyo's Foreign Ministry, who briefed Abe on the consultations after his return late Wednesday.
Abe has stressed the significance of the North's "sincerity" toward resolving the decades-old row.
He said the North's newly formed "special investigation committee" appears to have "unprecedented power" to examine any organisation thanks to the support of potent decision-making bodies such as the National Defence Commission and the State Security Department for the abduction issue.
"According to the principle of action to action, we would like to lift some of sanctions that Japan has independently imposed," Abe told reporters at his office in Tokyo.
"This is just a start. … We will make every effort to achieve a complete resolution of this issue."
The premier did not elaborate on which sanctions would be eased. He is expected to convene a cabinet meeting on Friday and hammer out and announce details, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.
The special committee would embark on its work on Friday and release its preliminary results in late summer or early fall, he added.
The panel will be chaired by So Tae-ha, a councilor in charge of security at the National Defence Commission and a vice minister in the Ministry of State Security. It is likely to consist of about 30 officials also from the Ministry of People's Armed Forces and the Ministry of People's Security.
Four subcommittees are to be set up, each responsible for: examining the status of the Japanese abductees; looking into other missing Japanese; handling the remains of deceased Japanese; and studying the fate of those who were left in North Korea and Japanese spouses of North Korean nationals.
"We informed the Japanese side of the authority, structure and main members of the special investigation committee, as well as its operation and probe methods," Song told reporters at the Beijing airport on his way home.
"We are willing to proceed with the investigation and inform Japan of its outcome as soon as possible."
Abe has been walking a fine line between fulfilling his promise to resolve the long-festering issue during his term, keeping the fickle counterpart from going astray and sustaining trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Washington on Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
Aside from the bilateral bans, the North is also under a series of UN Security Council sanctions imposed since its first nuclear test in 2006. They include bans on arms trade and personnel exchanges and a freeze of overseas North Korean assets.
The ongoing progress in the abductee negotiations may lead the nationalist premier to travel to Pyongyang and thus make way for a diplomatic coup for erratic leader Kim Jong-un, though Tokyo officials called it premature.
South Korea and the US initially expressed caution over Tokyo's unilateral move but later offered support from a "humani tarian standpoint."
"We welcome the Japanese government's decision and hope for an early resolution of the abduction issue as a humanitarian matter," Seoul's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"We reemphasize that the Japan-North Korea discussions including regarding a lifting of sanctions must be conducted in a transparent manner, and any related step by the Japanese government should be taken within a range that does not damage international cooperation frameworks including the South Korea-US-Japan partnership on the North Korea nuclear and missile programme."
China noted the "progress" in the negotiations, expressing hopes for better Pyongyang-Tokyo ties though its own relationship with Japan remains frosty.
"We hope that improved relations between the two countries can be conducive to regional peace and stability," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a news briefing.
Tension has been escalating around the peninsula following the North's repeated firing of short-range ballistic missiles and sharp criticism against South Korea and the US
Presidents Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping on Thursday held a summit and reaffirmed their "firm opposition" to a nuclear-armed North Korea and its further military provocations.
During the recent talks, Ihara presented a list of at least 10 surviving abductees in North Korea, Japan's Nikkei newspaper reported Thursday, citing unnamed government sources. But Suga denied the list.
In 2002, the late North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il admitted to then-Japanese Premier Junichiro Koizumi that his agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970-80s. Five of them and their families returned home shortly after the landmark summit.
Pyongyang had insisted that the other eight already died, while Tokyo has been calling for more information on them and others who were believed to have been taken to the reclusive state mostly to teach the Japanese language and customs to spies.
The number of abductees may have reached 860, Keiji Furuya, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission and a cabinet minister in charge of the issue, said last month, citing police data.