- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

BEIJING | Japan and North Korea agreed Wednesday to complete by autumn a new probe into Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese, a longtime source of conflict, with Tokyo granted access to the secretive state.

The nations, which have no diplomatic relations, held two days of talks in China in a bid to move forward on the emotionally charged kidnapping dispute, which has cast a shadow over international attempts to end Pyongyang’s nuclear drive.

Japanese media reports from the northeastern city of Shenyang said the two sides agreed on the practicalities of a new probe into the fate of Japanese kidnapped by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies.

North Korea will set up a special investigation committee “with an aim to finish it by the coming autumn,” said Akitaka Saiki, Japan’s chief nuclear negotiator with the North, as quoted by Japanese public broadcaster NHK.

The hard-line communist state will let Japanese officials visit sites in North Korea and conduct interviews, he said.

“I believe it is a step forward that we have been able to agree that they will launch a full investigation again,” Mr. Saiki said, in footage broadcast in Japan from Shenyang.

“I hope that the investigation will be carried out thoroughly and lead to the swift return of the victims.”

North Korea will let Japanese officials visit sites in North Korea and conduct interviews, he said.

In turn, Japan confirmed plans to lift restrictions on chartered flights and the movement of people with its impoverished neighbor, Japanese news reports said.

Japan has long had tense relations with North Korea due to the regime’s abductions, which were aimed at teaching spies Japanese language and customs.

Because of the dispute, Asia’s largest economy has refused any aid to Pyongyang under a six-nation nuclear disarmament deal. The talks in Shenyang were set up under the aegis of the nuclear deal.

Under U.S. pressure, North Korea said in June that it would reinvestigate the fate of the abductees.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted at a landmark 2002 summit with Japan’s then-prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, that his regime snatched 12 Japanese civilians.

He allowed five to return and said that others were dead. Japan insists more are alive and that North Korea has not acknowledged other abductees.

The most emblematic of the victims is Megumi Yokota, who was a 13-year-old schoolgirl when she was snatched off a Japanese beachfront in 1977. North Korea says she committed suicide as an adult, but her aging parents do not agree and have waged a campaign across Japan to demand pressure on North Korea.

The abduction issue is politically sensitive in Japan, where opinion polls show wide objections to dovish Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s easing of the sanctions.

A self-described right-wing activist was arrested Tuesday brandishing a sword outside the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to protest against U.S. moves toward reconciliation with North Korea.

The United States in June started removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism after the communist state submitted a long-awaited accounting of its nuclear programs.

Japan has opposed the decision due to the abduction dispute. The United States, however, did not remove North Korea from its list of terrorism sponsors on Monday, the earliest date it could legally do so.

The United States welcomed the talks between Japan and North Korea, but said it could not for now remove North Korea from its blacklist.

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