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Japan to lift some sanctions on North Korea in bid to improve relations with rogue country

TOKYO -- Japan took a tentative step toward improved relations with North Korea on Friday by agreeing to 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.

The Cabinet approved easing sanctions in three areas. 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.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday that 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.”

The announcement followed 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.

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