Japan’s Cabinet on Friday formally approved a lifting of part of its sanctions against North Korea as Pyongyang launches an investigation into its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970-80s.
The decision will ease restrictions on people-to-people exchanges and port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes such as carrying medical supplies. Up to 30 million yen ($294,000) can be sent and 1 million yen be brought from the communist state without declaration.
But the Mankyongbong-92, the only ship shuttling between the two countries used chiefly by pro-North Korean people in Japan, remains subject to the bans.
Pyongyang’s state media also announced the inception of a “special investigation committee” that will undertake a “comprehensive probe into all Japanese” in North Korea.
“The committee will be granted special authority by the National Defense Commission to examine any institutions and mobilize related agencies and personnel when necessary,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The relaxing is in line with the two countries’ agreement reached in Stockholm in May. They also held follow-up talks in Beijing early this week.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday said the panel will have “unprecedented power,” appreciating the capricious counterpart’s efforts to follow through on the deal.
The committee will be chaired by So Tae-ha, a councilor in charge of security at the National Defense 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. It is expected to unveil its preliminary results in late summer or early fall.
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.
Though the relaxed sanctions are not likely to immediately benefit the impoverished North, they would inevitably spark criticism over a potential crack in international efforts to press for its denuclearization.
South Korea and the U.S. initially expressed concerns over Japan’s unilateral move but later offered support from a “humanitarian standpoint,” stressing the need for transparency in any future progress.
Seoul “welcomed” Tokyo’s decision a day earlier, expressing hopes for an early resolution of the abduction issue.
“We reemphasize that the Japan-North Korea discussions 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-U.S.-Japan partnership on the North Korea nuclear and missile program,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Washington also offered its understanding and sympathy with the abductees’ families.
“We closely coordinate with our allies and partners, including Japan, to counter the threat to global security posed by (North Korea’s) nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.
“The Japanese government is pursuing the resolution of this issue in a transparent manner that takes into account both the interests of the families of the abductees and the national security interests of Japan and its diplomatic partners in the denuclearization effort.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org