By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 14, 2008
TOKYO, June 14 -- North Korea has promised to reinvestigate its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s, a surprise concession that prompted Japan to respond with a pledge to lift some of its economic sanctions against the closed Communist country.
The agreement, reached during bilateral talks this week in Beijing and announced Friday, cracks open what had been a closed door on trade, aid and travel between the neighboring countries. It may also bring Japan back as an active participant with the United States in negotiations to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
In Japan, the fate of eight still-missing Japanese whom North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping has become a national obsession. Politicians here cannot afford to be perceived as neglecting the issue. To that end, Tokyo imposed tough economic sanctions and cut off all food and energy aid to the North.
The government here says it believes all eight are alive in North Korea, while the government of Kim Jong Il had insisted since 2002 that all of them were dead, that the issue was closed and that there was nothing more to discuss.
In the past year, the North has shown a new willingness to dismantle its nuclear program and now has apparently changed its thinking on the abductees as well. The official news agency of North Korea said Friday that the government "expresses willingness to cooperate" and would "reinvestigate" the abductions.
"North Korea told us they would investigate with the intent to settle the kidnapping issue," Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura told reporters Friday. "They acknowledged that the kidnappings issue is not resolved."
North Korea also agreed to join in the investigation of the 1970 hijacking of a Japanese jet to the North, where four hijackers are believed to remain, Komura said.
He and other officials said Japan, in response, would lift some travel sanctions and allow shipping and some flights between the countries. One particularly painful shipping sanction, which was imposed in 2006 after the North tested missiles in waters near Japan, banned a ferry that ethnic Koreans in Japan had used to send money to the cash-starved North.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda suggested Friday that if the reinvestigation of the abductions makes progress, Japan would ease other economic sanctions.
North Korea's acknowledgment of the kidnappings came in 2002, during a brief period of detente with Japan. The North returned five abductees alive that year but said the eight others were dead.
In an attempt to prove that claim, North Korea sent partially cremated remains to Japan. But DNA testing here showed that the remains were not those of the missing abductees. The finding infuriated the Japanese public and helped lead to sanctions.
Despite United Nations appeals for food aid for the North this year, Tokyo has insisted it would send no food without progress on the abductions. The United States has promised to send about 500,000 tons of food this summer.