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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008

Cautious response to investigation counseled

Staff writer

Japanese experts welcomed Wednesday's developments between Japan and North Korea in Shenyang, China, as critically important, but also warned that Japan should not be in a rush to lift sanctions.

"North Korea pledged to deliver results in its reinvestigation of its abduction of Japanese nationals by this fall, which is a very short time span. This reflects their strong determination to make progress on the issue," said Masao Okonogi, professor at Keio University and an expert on North and South Korean politics.

Okonogi said Pyongyang's speed may have been influenced by its negotiations with the United States, as North Korea's compromise came only two days after Washington chose not to remove the North from its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries.

The fall deadline to conclude its abduction probe also coincides with the target date set by the six-party talks for completing the second stage of North Korea's denuclearization, which tasks Pyongyang with disabling and dismantling its main nuclear facilities.

"If any of the abducted Japanese are still alive, it could happen between now and autumn," Okonogi said. "On the other hand, if no progress is made despite the agreement, it could be a crucial blow against forging diplomatic relations."

Shunji Hiraiwa, a Korean affairs expert and professor at the University of Shizuoka, warned that the latest agreement also poses a risk for Japan, since the ball will be in Tokyo's court once North Korea sets up a committee to reinvestigate the abductions.

"Based on the principle of action-for-action, Japan will have to lift part of its sanctions if North Korea takes a step forward," Hiraiwa said. Although relatives of the abductees are unlikely to support any action without substantial progress, choosing not to reciprocate could lead to objections from the hermit state.

Hiraiwa described the agreement as a "compromise" on both sides, since Pyongyang had to ease tensions with Japan to impress the U.S., while Japan wanted to prevent the bilateral dispute from shackling the six-party talks.

The expert said the agreement reached could still bring about progress, but expressed doubt that North Korea's probe will provide satisfactory answers. Meanwhile, lifting economic sanctions without considerable progress could provoke domestic criticism, he said.

"The thing to watch now is how Japan will react when North Korea sets up its special investigative committee," he said.

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The Japan Times

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