N. Korea to reinvestigate abductions of Japanese nationals

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- North Korea has agreed to reinvestigate its past abductions of Japanese citizens, the two countries said Thursday, laying the groundwork for addressing a major stumbling block preventing them from normalizing ties.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who unexpectedly revealed the agreement, said he expects North Korea's decision to be "the first step toward comprehensively resolving" the abduction issue.

The announcement came a day after Japan and North Korea ended their latest round of intergovernmental talks in Stockholm, where their senior diplomats declined to comment in detail on the outcome.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference that Japan intends to ease its sanctions on North Korea, such as those restricting travel and remittances between the two countries, when it starts the reinvestigation.

But the top government spokesman also indicated Tokyo would reconsider whether to lift the sanctions, depending on progress made by North Korea in the probe.

The bilateral agreement could complicate international efforts to force North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile development.

As the United States and South Korea have been struggling to stop North Korean provocations and address tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Abe's decision may backfire on Tokyo's relations with its partners.

North Korea also released a report on the outcome of the three-day negotiations through its official media, saying it is ready to "conduct a comprehensive and full-scale survey for the final settlement of all issues related to Japanese."

It said it had agreed to set up a "special investigation committee" and "inform the Japanese side of the survey and confirmation when necessary."

Suga said North Korea is expected to launch the investigation panel in around three weeks and no deadline has been set for the probe, although the spokesman added it would not be acceptable for the probe to take years to conclude.

According to the Korean Central News Agency, "When survivors are found...(North Korea will) discuss the issue of course of action and take necessary measures in the direction of sending them back to Japan."

The abductions by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s have prevented the two countries from normalizing diplomatic relations.

North Korea, which admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese, has repeatedly said the issue has been settled. But this time the report on the negotiations in the Swedish capital made no reference to its long-held position.

Japan officially lists 17 people as having been abducted by North Korea, but it suspects Pyongyang's involvement in many more disappearances.

Abe said North Korea "promised a comprehensive and full-scale survey of all the Japanese, including both the abduction victims and those who went missing and are suspected of having been abducted."

Japanese police have counted more than 800 such suspected abductees.

Only five of the 17 and their families have been returned to Japan. North Korea says the remaining eight of the 13 people it has admitted to abducting are dead.

North Korea promised in 2008 to reinvestigate the abduction cases, but the commitment had yet to be fulfilled.

The countries restarted the intergovernmental talks in March following a 16-month hiatus.

Abe's announcement came right after he met with relevant ministers to discuss Japan's relations with North Korea, based on a briefing by the delegation that returned home from the talks through Wednesday in Stockholm.

May 29, 2014(Mainichi Japan)