Japan took a tentative step toward improved relations with North Korea today by agreeing to lift some of its sanctions, as Pyongyang announced the details of a new probe into the fate of at least a dozen Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents decades ago. The Cabinet approved easing sanctions in three areas, following yesterday's announcement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the country would do so: It lifted a ban on North Koreans visiting Japan, allowing them on a case-by-case basis, and made it easier for Japanese and ethnic Koreans in Japan to travel to North Korea. It also raised the reporting limit for money taken or sent to North Korea. Thirdly, it approved port calls by North Korean-flagged ships for humanitarian purposes, limited to the delivery of food, medicine, and clothes in small amounts.
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. After years of denial, North Korea acknowledged in 2002 that its agents had abducted Japanese citizens to train its spies in the 1970s and 1980s 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. (Read more North Korea stories.)