Japan has decided to lift sanctions imposed on North Korea in 2006 after Pyongyang promised to investigate a bizarre campaign from the 1970s and 80s to abduct Japanese citizens.
Pyongyang and Tokyo made the announcement on Thursday following meetings earlier this week. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Thursday evening, "This is a first step toward an overall resolution" to the long-festering issue of the abductions.
North Korea even mentioned the possibility of normalizing diplomatic relations and humanitarian assistance from Tokyo.
South Korea was apparently blindsided by the agreement and worries that it will seriously weaken international efforts to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Officials here are stumped by Tokyo’s unilateral breakaway from the sanctions regime.
A government official here said, "There are areas of the agreement that the government here may find sensitive to accept. We have no reason to block Japan's efforts to investigate the abductions of its citizens, but there has not been enough communication between [South] Korea and Japan on the matter."
Japan has repeatedly hinted it could lift its sanctions against North Korea if the North is willing to investigate the abductions and reveal what became of the victims. There have also been calls from within the Japanese government to improve ties with North Korea in order to gain more leverage in negotiations with South Korea.
But few officials here had expected Japan to take such a bold unilateral step amid U.S. efforts to tighten regional cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo and even Beijing in pressuring Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons.