Japan lifts North Korea sanctions
Japan has taken a tentative step towards improved relations with North Korea by agreeing to lift some of its sanctions in response to the North's decision to reopen a probe into the fate of at least a dozen Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents decades ago.
The cabinet approved the lifting of a ban on North Koreans visiting Japan, allowing them on a case-by-case basis, and made it easier for Japanese and ethnic Koreans in Japan to travel to North Korea.
It also raised the reporting limit for money taken or sent to North Korea, and approved port calls by North Korean-flagged ships for humanitarian purposes, limited to the delivery of food, medicine and clothes in small amounts.
Japanese officials said the eased sanctions will not give a significant economic boost to North Korea or weaken the impact of international efforts to punish and isolate the North for its nuclear weapons development.
Prime minister Shinzo Abe said he was satisfied that a North Korean investigation committee has the mandate to carry out a serious investigation into the abductions, though previous deals with the North have fallen through. Japan will continue to abide by UN sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes.
"We have determined that an unprecedented framework has been established, where an organisation that can make decisions at a national level ... will be at the forefront of the investigations," Mr Abe said. "However, this is only a start. We are determined to do everything we can, with a renewed effort, toward a comprehensive resolution."
The announcement followed talks between North Korean and Japanese negotiators in Beijing earlier this week.
North Korea's state media put out their first report on the talks shortly after Mr 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 by the Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea has demanded that Japan do more to atone for its past harsh colonisation of the Korean peninsula, when it attempted to suppress Korean culture and forced people to work in Japanese mines and factories.
In Seoul, Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il said South Korea looks forward to an early resolution of the abduction issue, but he said any steps taken by Japan should not undermine international co-operation on the North Korean nuclear and missile stand-offs.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing, North Korea's closest ally, hopes the improvement in Japan-North Korea relations resulting from the negotiations will be "conducive to regional peace and stability".
After years of denial, North Korea acknowledged in 2002 that its agents had abducted Japanese citizens to train its spies in the 1970s and 1980s 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.
Private organisations say hundreds of Japanese citizens were abducted, and suspect many may still be living in the North.