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May 29, 2017

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Japan to lift some sanctions on North Korea

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a tentative step toward improved relations with North Korea on Thursday by announcing his government will 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.

Abe said 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."

Abe's decision is to be formally approved by his Cabinet on Friday, after the committee holds its first meeting. The announcement follows 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.

"The government of the Republic of Korea once again stresses that the Japan-North Korea consultations, including on easing Japan's unilateral sanctions on North Korea, should, by all means, be held in a transparent manner and that all the relevant measures by Japan should be taken in a way that does not undermine the coordination among the ROK, the U.S. and Japan on North Korea's nuclear and missile issues," Noh told a regular briefing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing, North Korea's closest ally, hopes the improvement in Japan-North Korea relations resulting from the negotiations will be "conducive to regional peace and stability."

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