Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday that Tokyo will lift some sanctions on North Korea in return for its reopening of a probe into the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang’s agents decades ago, as a fresh report emerged that some of them were alive.
Easing the sanctions will likely have only a minimal economic impact, but it could be a first step toward repairing long-chilled ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang. The decision comes at a time of persistent international concern about the volatile North's nuclear and missile programs.
Abe's decision is expected to be formally approved by his Cabinet on Friday, after the new committee holds its first meeting. The announcement follows a meeting between North Korean and Japanese negotiators in Beijing earlier this week.
Japan will lift travel curbs to and from North Korea and end restrictions on the amount of money that can be sent or brought to the impoverished North without notifying Japanese authorities. It will also allow port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes.
The sanctions to be lifted are separate from those, imposed by Japan and other U.N. members after Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006, that prohibit U.N. member states from arms trade with Pyongyang and from financial transactions that facilitate such trade.
North Korea's state media put out its first report of the talks on Thursday shortly after Abe's announcement, saying the North's negotiators briefed their Japanese counterparts on the composition of the committee and how it will work.
"Both sides agreed to take necessary measures in the days ahead, while getting in touch with each other through a diplomatic channel," said the report from the Korean Central News Agency.
After years of denial, North Korea acknowledged in 2002 that its agents had abducted Japanese to train its spies and eventually returned five of them. It said others Japan claimed were abducted had died or never entered the North. Tokyo disputes that and wants an investigation into at least 12 abduction cases.
The Nikkei newspaper said on Thursday that North Korea had handed Japan the names of at least 10 of its nationals said to be living in that country, including some of those believed to have been abducted.
Private organizations say hundreds of Japanese citizens were abducted, and suspect many may still be living in the North. Abe, who has made resolving the abduction issue one of his top political priorities, has vowed not to relent until all of the abductees are returned or accounted for.
Although Pyongyang made a similar agreement in 2008, that deal fell through and relations between the countries have been virtually frozen since.
Al Jazeera and wire services