TOKYO -- North Korea has agreed to open a new investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s in return for the lifting of some sanctions, the two countries said Thursday.
Japan will lift the sanctions after it confirms that a committee has been set up and has begun work, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. It will also consider possible humanitarian aid to North Korea depending on the progress of the investigation, which is expected to start in about three weeks, he said.
The sanctions, which are in addition to U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea, include restrictions on bilateral exchanges, limits on how much money ethnic Koreans in Japan can take on visits to North Korea, and a ban on port calls by North Korean-flagged ships.
North Korea acknowledged in 2002 that its agents kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly to train spies in Japanese language and culture. It allowed five of them to return to Japan in 2002, but said the others had died. Japan remains suspicious of that finding, and has identified others it believes were abducted. It has been demanding a new investigation into the fate of the remaining abductees and wants any still alive to be returned. North Korea abandoned an earlier promise to reinvestigate in 2008.
Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945 and the two countries have never restored diplomatic ties.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said the North agreed to set up an investigation committee and, if survivors are found, take necessary steps to send them back to Japan.
Japan, in exchange, "re-clarified its will to settle its inglorious past, solve the pending issues and normalize the relations," KCNA said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the agreement was a first step toward resolving the kidnapping issue, which has long kept the nations at odds.
"We have been tackling the issue with the resolve that our mission will not end until the day the families of the abduction victims can hold their loved ones in their arms," he told reporters.
The agreement came during three days of talks between North Korean and Japanese officials in Stockholm earlier this week.
Suga, speaking at a special news conference, welcomed the deal as a breakthrough and praised North Korea for showing a commitment to resolving the various issues between the countries.
"We are still at the starting line, but we have never come this far before," he said.