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All Headlines 11:28 June 19, 2008

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N.K., Japan Agree on Abduction Probe, Partial Lifting of Sanctions

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- After two days of intense talks with Japan, North Korea announced on June 13 that it will reopen an investigation into its past abduction of Japanese citizens, reversing its long-standing claim that it has already come clean about the sensitive matter. In return, Japan decided to partially lift its economic sanctions on the communist country.

The North's decision raises the likelihood that it will be removed from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring nations, paving the way for the resumption of six-way talks on its nuclear program. "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea will reinvestigate the abduction issue," the North's Korean Central News Agency said, using the country's official name.

"The DPRK also expresses willingness to cooperate in efforts to settle the issue of those related to the Japanese plane Yodo," it added, referring to a 1970 incident in which Japanese radicals hijacked a Japan Airlines passenger jet to Pyongyang.

The announcement followed two days of working-level talks on the normalization of bilateral relations in Beijing from June 11 to 12. It was the first formal meeting between the two sides on the issue since talks in Mongolia last September.

At least 17 Japanese citizens were kidnapped by the North in the 1970s and 1980s, according to Tokyo. North Korea has maintained, however, that only 13 Japanese nationals were held there against their will, citing the results of its own investigation.

In October 2002, a month after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had a summit in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang repatriated five of the abductees and claimed that all the rest had died.

The abduction issue has hindered international efforts to denuclearize the North. Japan has been refusing to provide North Korea with heavy oil and other energy aid promised under a six-way deal signed last year, calling on Pyongyang to make a goodwill gesture.

Japanese government officials confirmed that Tokyo will partially lift sanctions, although they said the North's gesture would not lead to an immediate delivery of heavy oil to the North.

Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said that his government will allow mutual visits for the two sides' people, chartered flights, and port calls by North Korean cargo ships to pick up humanitarian aid.

Tokyo imposed sanctions, including a ban on imports and port calls by North Korean ships, in October 2006 after North Korea conducted a nuclear test and launched ballistic missiles. The sanctions were extended for six months, starting in April.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters later that the agreement heralds more talks on mending relations between the two neighboring nations. "The process of resolving the abduction issue has resumed, and the government would like to have active talks with North Korea in order to achieve a comprehensive solution to the issues of the abductions and its nuclear and missile programs," he said.

South Korean officials welcomed the Pyongyang-Tokyo agreement. "It will apparently have a positive impact on the six-way talk process," a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said. He added that the abduction issue was one of the obstacles to advancing the denuclearization process.

But there are growing concerns that the South Korean government may be left out of the multilateral efforts to accelerate the nuclear negotiations. During the times of confrontation between North Korea and Japan and the U.S., the South often played the role of a mediator. But recently, Washington and Pyongyang have been in close contact for mutual benefits and eventual diplomatic ties, while Tokyo and Pyongyang are likely to continue their contacts.

A pro-Pyongyang newspaper published in Japan hailed the North Korea-Japan agreement as a prelude to regular dialogue in the future. "The process leading from preliminary contacts to an agreement showed that both sides put efforts into preparing a condition to continue the dialogue to solve pending issues," said the Choson Sinbo.

Observers say that the North's latest move is also expected to help persuade Washington to remove it from the terrorism blacklist, which has triggered various sanctions against the cash-strapped nation, including access to low-interest loans from international financial institutions.

The delisting is a key political incentive for Pyongyang to turn in a promised list of its nuclear programs. Japan has reportedly called for the U.S. not to remove the North from the blacklist unless it takes steps to address the abduction issue.

Pyongyang issued an anti-terrorism statement on June 10, saying it will "firmly maintain its consistent stance of opposing all forms of terrorism" as a U.N. member state. North Korea was added to the terror list in 1988, a year after its agents were found to have bombed a South Korean passenger airplane in flight. All 115 people onboard were killed.

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