North Korea has allegedly confirmed the survival of some Japanese nationals kidnapped decades ago, a Japanese news report claimed Thursday, suggesting a potential breakthrough in the two countries’ long-festering diplomatic tug-of-war.
During a meeting in Beijing last week, North Korean officials presented a list of 30 survivors along with their birthdates, occupations and family members’ names, including “several” of the 17 people officially recognized as abductees by Tokyo, the Nikkei daily reported.
The list, drawn up early this year, also included some of the missing who were highly likely to have been taken to the reclusive country, the newspaper said.
The Japanese government conducted a weeklong deliberation and found that about “two-thirds” of the information provided by Pyongyang was consistent with its own data.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denied the report.
The newspaper earlier reported that the Japanese government at the recent talks handed over a list of at least 10 abductees believed to be still living in North Korea.
The report marks a possible about-face in the communist regime’s long-held claim, which could speed up the two countries’ ongoing negotiations and ultimately usher in a new era in their testy relations.
In 2002, then-strongman Kim Jong-il admitted to then-Premier Junichiro Koizumi that North Korean agents had snatched 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970-80s and used them to teach their language and customs to spies. Five of them and their families were returned home shortly after the landmark summit.
Tokyo has identified 17 people as abductees and called for information on the remaining 12 and their return since 2002.
Pyongyang, however, has insisted that eight of them have already died and the other four never entered the country.
The report points to apparently rapid progress in their talks over the abduction issue.
Last week, Japan’s Cabinet formally approved a lifting of part of its sanctions against North Korea in line with the launch of a probe into the abductions.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to resolve the longstanding issue during his tenure.
The decision relaxed 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 ($295,000) can now be sent and 1 million yen can be brought from the North without having to be declared.
But Pyongyang remains subject to a series of U.N. 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.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)