Japan said yesterday it would ease sanctions against North Korea after the secretive state agreed to reinvestigate the kidnapping of Japanese nationals to train spies, in a significant breakthrough for testy relations.
The announcement comes after three days of talks between the two sides in Sweden, and marks the most positive engagement between Pyongyang and the outside world in many months.
"As a result of the Japan-North Korea talks, the North Korean side promised to the Japanese side that it will make a comprehensive and thorough investigation" into confirmed and suspected abductions, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.
"In keeping with the promise, it will set up a special commission for the investigation."
In return, Tokyo has agreed to ease some of the stinging sanctions it has levelled at the unpredictable regime.
"Japan has decided to lift special restrictions on travel by people, reporting requirements on remittances ... as well as the ban on North Korea-registered vessels entering Japanese ports for humanitarian purposes," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
North Korea outraged Japan when it admitted more than a decade ago that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese language and customs.
Five of the abductees were allowed to return to Japan but Pyongyang has insisted, without producing solid evidence, that the eight others are dead.
The issue is a highly charged one in Japan, where there are suspicions that perhaps dozens of other people were taken.
"Our mission will never end until the day comes when families of all abduction victims are able to embrace their children with their own arms," Abe said.
"We have tackled the problem with this determination and we hope that this will be the first step towards an overall solution."
Pyongyang's approach to its dealings with Japan appears to have softened in recent months, especially on the emotive issue of the abductions.