Tokyo approved easing its sanctions on North Korea in a bid to encourage Pyongyang to launch a genuine investigation into the whereabouts of Japanese nationals abducted by the regime. But rights activists are skeptical.
The Japanese government lifted on Friday, July 4 some of the sanctions imposed on North Korea as far back as 2006, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying that he had decided on the dramatic course of action after Pyongyang convinced Japanese negotiators that the regime was sincere in its desire to locate and return Japanese who had been forcibly taken to the North.
Sanctions were originally introduced after North Korea carried out an underground nuclear detonation and test-fired a ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead, with additional sanctions added in the wake of further atomic tests, but Abe has made winning the freedom of the 12 Japanese listed by the government as abductees a key part of his foreign policy.
To try to achieve this, the government on Friday rescinded the ban on North Korean nationals entering Japan and the advice to Japanese that they should not visit North Korea.
Visits, cash transfers
Members of Chongryon, the association of North Korean residents of Japan, will from now on be permitted to return to Japan after visiting the North and most North Korean registered cargo ships and ferries are now permitted to dock at Japanese ports. The provision on funds being sent to North Korea has also been altered, with the amount that must be declared to the Japanese government being raised from Y3 million (21,610 euros) to Y30 million (216,097 euros).
Pyongyang convinced Japan that the regime was sincere in its desire to locate and return Japanese who had been forcibly taken to the North
Announcing his decision in Tokyo, Abe said, "We have determined that an unprecedented framework has been established, where an organization that can make decisions at a national level ... will be at the forefront of the investigations. But this is just a start," he cautioned. "We are determined to do everything we can to achieve the complete resolution of this issue."
Speaking to DW, a spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry would not be drawn on whether the government is optimistic that the agreement would be the breakthrough that would return the abductees to Japan.
"We are refraining from categorizing our assessment either way," the official said. "We are closely watching the progress of North Korea's investigation and we want to make sure that the efforts of the North's special committee will bring concrete results."
Adhering to UN sanctions
Japan is emphasizing that while it is relaxing its own unilateral sanctions on North Korea, it remains committed to the tough line that the United Nations is taking on Pyongyang for flouting resolutions passed by the UN Security Council for its nuclear and missile programs.
The international reaction to the agreement has been broadly supportive, with Washington issuing a statement saying that it believes Tokyo is handling discussions with Pyongyang in a "transparent manner" and expressing "understanding" of Japan's efforts to resolve the abduction of its citizens.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it hopes progress in the discussions can "be conducive to regional peace and stability," while the South Korean government expressed understanding of the "humanitarian" nature of Japan's efforts, but warned that Tokyo needs to remain firm in its commitment to the UN insistence that North Korea halt its development of nuclear weapons.
In Pyongyang, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported on Friday that the Special Investigation Committee "will start an all-inclusive and comprehensive investigation into all Japanese residing in the DPRK from July 4."
Giving the committee additional clout is the appointment of So Tae-ha, counselor for the National Defense Commission, the most powerful organ within the regime, yet there are still plenty of potential pitfalls for the agreement.
North not optimistic
"The North Korean side is being very helpful and this will not change, but I am not optimistic about reaching a positive final outcome," Kim Myong-chol, executive director of The Centre for North Korea-US Peace and a mouthpiece for the regime in Pyongyang, told DW.
"These improved relations between North Korea and Japan are undermining the sanctions imposed by the United States and Washington cannot allow that to happen as it would end the isolation of North Korea," he said.
"Sooner or later, the US will intervene to tell Japan to break up the relationship," he said, adding that Washington has "a long history of humiliating Japanese leaders by telling them what to do."
To Ken Kato, director of Human Rights in Asia and a member of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, that sounds like Pyongyang getting its excuses for the failure of the initiative in early.
"We have our concerns about easing the sanctions, but this is the course that Mr Abe has chosen and I trust him," he told DW. "But we have submitted a petition to the government urging them to put a three-month time limit on progress.
"That is plenty of time for the North Koreans to confirm the whereabouts of the Japanese nationals they kidnapped," he said. "And if there is no progress in that time, then I believe the sanctions should be re-imposed and made even more stringent than before."
Kato says that while he hopes the abductees can be reunited with their families in the near future, he fears that Pyongyang will once again fail to act in good faith. "For the last six decades, they have never acted with sincerity," he said. "I doubt they have changed now. We cannot trust them."