The mayor of the Japanese port city of Sakaiminato said his brief visit to North Korea was aimed at exploring the potential of a North Korean port as a trading channel for China.
Sakaiminato Mayor Katsuji Nakamura made a day trip to North Korea from China on Thursday to take a look at the facilities of Rajin port in the Rason special economic zone. He was accompanied by officials from Hunchun in the Chinese province of Jilin that borders North Korea.
The Chinese city, which uses Rajin for trade, proposed the tour.
Speaking to reporters at city hall after returning to Japan, Nakamura said the purpose of the trip “was for an inspection to explore the possibility [for the port] to become a trading base for China in the future”.
He added that he was not considering at all building a new trade route linking Sakaiminato to China at the moment.
Sakaiminato used to be a port for trading second-hand cars and seafood with North Korea.
He dismissed concerns in some quarters that it was insensitive for a municipal government official to travel to North Korea when the thorny abduction issue had not been fully resolved between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
“I don’t think it had a major impact on Japan-North Korea consultations [on the kidnapping issue],” he said of his day trip. “I would have to humbly acknowledge criticism, if there is any.”
Nakamura is believed to be the first local government head to travel to North Korea since Japan lifted its restrictions on travel between the two countries in July, in return for North Korea’s opening of a fresh investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pyongyang is thought to be raising hope that Rajin port will be a major channel for goods on trade routes on the Sea of Japan and has undertaken major refurbishments of the port facilities by drawing Russian capital.
The Japanese government banned North Korean-registered ships from entering the port after Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.
Meanwhile, a group of Japanese citizens will visit North Korea from September 15 to 23 to pay their respects at the graves of relatives who died there around the end of the second world war, the group said on Friday.
The Association for Families to Retrieve Japanese Remains in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) announced the plan, reflecting members’ hope to visit North Korea within this year. Japan’s Foreign Ministry earlier said it would not be able to sponsor a trip for that purpose in the near future.
The association also said it would invite experts from North Korea to attend symposiums in mid-October in Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka on grave visits.