World Bulletin/News Desk
North Korea has agreed to reopen an investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens it kidnapped decades ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday, a potential breakthrough in a bitter dispute between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
Japan has agreed to ease some sanctions against North Korea once the probe had been reopened and will consider providing humanitarian aid depending on how the investigation progresses, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said separately.
"Our job will not end until every parent can embrace their children with their own arms," Abe told reporters. "This is a first step toward an overall resolution."
North Korea promised in 2008 to re-open the probe - but it never followed through. It also reneged on promises made in multilateral talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programme and declared the negotiations over.
The agreement on the abductees probe comes at a time of regional concerns that Pyongyang may be preparing for a fourth nuclear test in contravention of U.N. sanctions.
Asked whether Japan's actions meant Tokyo was out of step with Washington and Seoul, Suga told a news conference: "It's impossible. This agreement covers sanctions that Japan imposed on its own. It is not related to U.N. sanctions."
Suga added that Japan would keep pressing for a "comprehensive resolution" to the issues of the abductees and the threats from North Korea's nuclear and missile development programmes before it would normalise ties with Pyongyang.
North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006, banning it from conducting atomic and missile tests, barring U.N. member states from weapons trade with Pyongyang and financial transactions that facilitate them.
"The DPRK (North Korea) side ... expressed the willingness to conduct a comprehensive and full-scale survey for the final settlement of all issues related to Japanese," North Korea's official KCNA news agency said in a nearly simultaneous announcement.
Suga said that, once Pyongyang began the new investigation, Tokyo would lift restrictions on travel, fund remittances to North Korea and an embargo on the entry to Japanese ports of North Korea-flagged ships with humanitarian missions.
Abe, who took office for a rare second term in December 2012, has long made efforts to resolve the abductees issue a key part of his political agenda.
Japan was a driving force behind a U.N. report, released earlier this year, calling on North Korean leaders to face international justice for crimes against humanity, including the abductions.
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