TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a tentative step toward improved relations with North Korea on Thursday by announcing his government will lift some of its sanctions in response to the North's decision to re-open a probe into the fate of at least a dozen Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents decades ago.
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 U.N. sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.
"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," Abe said. "However, this is only a start. We are determined to do everything we can, with a renewed effort, toward a comprehensive resolution."
Abe's decision is to be formally approved by his Cabinet on Friday, after the committee holds its first meeting. The announcement follows 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 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 colonization of the Korean Peninsula, when it attempted to suppress Korean culture and forced people to work in Japanese mines and factories.
"For the normalization of relations between our two countries, I think that Japan has to settle the problems of its past," Ro Hyon A, a North Korean citizen, said in Pyongyang.
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 shouldn't undermine international cooperation on the North Korean nuclear and missile standoffs.
"The government of the Republic of Korea once again stresses that the Japan-North Korea consultations, including on easing Japan's unilateral sanctions on North Korea, should, by all means, be held in a transparent manner and that all the relevant measures by Japan should be taken in a way that does not undermine the coordination among the ROK, the U.S. and Japan on North Korea's nuclear and missile issues," Noh told a regular briefing.
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 '80s and eventually returned five of them. It said others Japan said were abducted had died or never entered the North. Tokyo disputes that and wants an investigation into at least 12 abduction cases.
Even that may not be enough, however.
Private organizations say hundreds of Japanese citizens were abducted, and suspect many may still be living in the North. Abe has vowed not to relent until all the abductees are returned or accounted for.
Though Tokyo is as concerned about North Korea's nuclear program as its allies in Washington and Seoul, the abduction issue has for years been an added complication in its relations with the North, creating both anger among the Japanese public and strong calls for an agreement to bring any survivors home.
Although North Korea made a similar agreement in 2008 to investigate, that deal fell through and relations between the countries have been virtually frozen since.
In addition to the U.N. sanctions, Japan unilaterally bans port calls by any North Korean-flagged vessels, all trade with North Korea and the entry into Japan of North Korean citizens. Abe's decision will ease travel restrictions, allow port calls for humanitarian purposes and loosen requirements on reporting money transfers to the North.
Japanese officials say 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.
North Korea also is under sanctions based on U.N. resolutions since 2006 that include an arms trade ban, a freeze of North Korean assets, a ban on people exchanges and restrictions on education and training.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo wants the abduction investigation to be wrapped up "within one year." In Beijing, North Korea's negotiators said they will conduct the investigation promptly.
"We were able to open North Korea's door that had been closed for many years, and we are now at a starting line after patient negotiations," Suga said. "This is something that has never happened before. We will watch developments very closely."
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report. Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/EricTalmadge.