by Jon Day
TOKYO, July 3 (Xinhua) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pledged on Thursday to lift some of Japan's sanctions on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The vow was made following Pyongyang's commitment to reinvestigating the issue of Japanese nationals being abducted by DPRK agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
The pledge marks a promising shift in frosty relations between the two countries amid a previous absence of diplomatic ties.
Japan's leader said the day that he is of the opinion that the DPRK has taken an unprecedented step in forming a special committee with a mandate to carry out a serious investigations and make decisions at a state level, under the auspices of both the DPRK's National Defense Commission and the Ministry of State Security.
Abe went on to confirm that once the committee officially launches its new investigations into the abductions issues, slated for Friday, his approval to lift some sanctions will be officially approved by his Cabinet, with the trade-off between the two countries being coined "action-for-action" by Japan's premiere.
"Considering the breakdown of such a deal in 2008, this is something of a monumental shift in relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang and in some regards unprecedented," political analyst Teruhisa Muramatsu told Xinhua.
"I think Prime Minister Abe is convinced that through a number of rounds of effective negotiations in Stockholm in May and in Beijing recently, that the DPRK will make good on its promise to quickly reinvestigate the abductions and Japan's 'quid-pro-quo' approach is in the best interests of both parties at this point," Muramatsu said.
He went on to say that the Japanese side was likely heartened in particular by the fact that the newly-formed committee will fall under state jurisdiction, with one of the committee's most senior officials being a vice minister of the Ministry of State Security, with strong links to the DPRK's supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
"In addition, it seems that senior government officials here including Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Director General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs and Japan's head delegate on the matter, Junichi Ihara, as well as a host of foreign ministry lawmakers, were also somewhat galvanized by DPRK's clear explanation of exactly how the committee will work and DPRK's eagerness to have the investigations wrapped up within a year, as Japan had requested," Muramatsu said.
"Making this clear through their state media outlet, also shows DPRK's willingness to cooperate," he said.
Japan, for its part, has said it will ease restrictions on travel between the two countries and those on fund transfers to and cash carried into the DPRK. The lifting of sanctions will also see flag-bearing ships from the DPRK allowed to dock in Japanese ports, provided their purposes are "humanitarian" in nature.
But while the eased sanctions by Japan may not have a huge quantifiable impact on the DPRK's economy, for example, the ongoing communication necessary between the two sides to ensure the investigations go smoothly and are concluded in a timely manner, may be of benefit to both sides who have, due to the issue, been unable to normalize diplomatic ties, observers said.
"Although it's very embryonic at the moment, it's possible that if the abduction issue can be settled then ties between DPRK and Japan, within the limits of the United Nations, can become better and pave the way for better diplomatic dialogue between the two nations, which must be good for the region as a whole," political commentator Philip McNeil told Xinhua.
"Perhaps with this 'we'll scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-ours ' way of diplomacy, DPRK could see further sanctions lifted by Japan and perhaps Japan's calls for DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapons technology and concerns over its missile testing, can be made more intimately and to a more receptive audience, if diplomacy between the two sides improves," said McNeil.
But McNeil pointed out that there remains a lot of work to be done to achieve this, on a practical level, as despite in 2002 the DPRK admitting to having abducted 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, and then claiming the matter had already been settled with Japan, with five of the abductees being repatriated and the remaining eight being declared dead, Japan has called for clearer evidence.
Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of the abduction issue, and Abe, who has made resolving this issue one of his highest political priorities, have both intimated that there may have been more individuals abducted than Japan has officially listed.
Human rights groups estimate that as many of 470 Japanese citizens may have been abducted by the DPRK, far less than the National Police Agency's number of as many as 860 people.
"There may be a disparity in the number of abductees that Japan officially lists and the actually number, and no doubt that is something that has been addressed in previous negations, as for this deal to go ahead both sides would have had to have agreed on a fixed set of parameters," said Muramatsu.
"And while the specifics are important and cannot be ignored, this partial thaw in ties between DPRK and Japan can't be understated. I think hopes are high, unlike in 2008 when talks broke down, that both significant practical and diplomatic progress will be made," said Muramatsu, adding that while a visit by Abe to Pyongyang was unlikely in the short term, it would "not be impossible" in the longer term.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told a parliamentary committee recently that a visit by Abe had been discussed and the premier himself has hinted at a possible trip if proceedings hit a decisive stage.
Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the DPRK in an official capacity in 2002 and 2004, in two separate bids to normalize ties between the two nations.