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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gives a brief statement to reporters following a meeting at his official residence in Tokyo Thursday. / AP

BEIJING - In a rare concession to North Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Thursday that his government will lift some sanctions on the isolated state.

The move does not affect more comprehensive United Nations sanctions aimed at stopping North Korea's nuclear program.

Tokyo is acting in response to the North's agreement to establish a high-level committee to reinvestigate the cases of Japanese citizens abducted and taken to North Korea decades ago by North Korean agents. The issue remains a highly emotional one in Japan, where many believe that hundreds of citizens were abducted.

North Korea has given Japan the names of at least 10 Japanese nationals believed to be living in North Korea, including some suspected abductees, Reuters reported Thursday. Japan has previously demanded an investigation into at least 12 abduction cases.

"Under the principle of matching action with action, Japan will lift a portion of its sanctions" on North Korea, Abe said.

The sanctions to be lifted, after Abe's Cabinet formally approves the decision Friday, include travel bans and restrictions on money transfers. Port calls by North Korean ships, which are currently banned, may be permitted for humanitarian purposes.

Abe's move restarts the diplomatic efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who traveled to Pyongyang to discuss the abductees in 2004, said Masao Okonogi, an expert on the Korean peninsula at Japan's Kyushu University. "It's a very risky decision."

The North Korean committee must report the results of its investigation in about three months, Okonogi said. "We can't guess how much will satisfy the Japanese public opinion. Maybe it's impossible to satisfy," he said. The involvement of top leaders will add weight to the process, but Okonogi doubts that this potential breakthrough will lead to a substantial warming of ties.

North Korea seeks large-scale economic assistance, compensation for Japan's colonization of Korea, and normalization of relations, but Abe is unlikely to agree, Okonogi said.

"We can't expect such a conservative man would do that. It's almost the same as U.S. President Nixon going to Beijing," he said. But to achieve real progress, Abe must visit North Korea, he said.

Some analysts were skeptical about the timing of the sanctions announcement, two days after a historic shift in security policy that will allow Japan's military to defend allies under attack.

"The 'revelation' that there are more than 10 survivors is encouraging, but the timing seems to divert attention away from Abe's extremely unpopular coup against Japan's postwar pacifist order," Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University's Japan campus, told Reuters.

North Korea will not abolish its nuclear and long-range missile programs but could promise to freeze them as it seeks a restart of multilateral negotiations known as the Six Party Talks, Okonogi said. Those talks are unlikely to begin again soon, and they first require further talks between North and South Korea, he said.

On Tuesday, Seoul turned down Pyongyang's proposal to cease military hostilities, arguing that North Korea must first show its commitment to ending its nuclear weapons program, said Yonhap, a South Korean news agency.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Seoul on Thursday for talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, which include discussion of North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

In a possible reflection of Beijing's displeasure with North Korea, whose regime relies on support from China, Xi is visiting the South first, unlike previous Chinese presidents.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Seeking abductees, Japan eases N. Korea sanctions

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