August 15, 2014 2:33 am JST

North Korea looking to swap abductee info for aid

TOKYO -- North Korea has asked for humanitarian assistance and a further easing of sanctions by Japan in exchange for preliminary findings of a new probe into the whereabouts of missing Japanese, government sources told The Nikkei on Thursday.

     The North Korean side indicated that the initial report would shed some light on the cases, the sources said.

     The report is expected to be ready in the first half of September, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong told his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, last weekend. The two spoke at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial conference in Myanmar.

     North Korea has already produced a list of about 30 Japanese said to be living in the secretive state. It is unclear exactly how many of them are missing persons recognized by the Japanese government as victims of state-sponsored kidnappings in the 1970s and 80s.

     Japan eased or waived some unilateral sanctions on North Korea in conjunction with the start of the investigation last month. Pyongyang now seems to be angling for assurances of more rewards. In addition to food, medicine and other humanitarian aid, it appears to want Japan to ease more of its unilateral sanctions -- for example, by allowing unrestricted port access to the Mangyongbong-92, a North Korean ferry.

     Under an agreement reached in May, Japan is to "consider providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea at an appropriate time" once the investigation begins. But Tokyo remains wary of giving in to the North's demands in the absence of clear evidence of progress -- ideally, the return of surviving abductees, or at least credible information on their whereabouts. The Japanese government will conduct its own assessment of the findings in Japan and may send an investigative team to North Korea. It maintains that sanctions pursuant to United Nations Security Council resolutions are not eligible for easing.

     Japan intends to continue pressing North Korea to restrain its nuclear and missile development efforts, a point that Kishida drove home in his meeting with Ri. But the U.S. and South Korea fear that the North is trying to use the abduction issue as a wedge to weaken their solidarity with Japan.