Japan Pressures North Korea on Kidnappings

Japan (search) will delay imposing economic sanctions on North Korea (search) to give the communist state more time to explain the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang decades ago, the Japanese prime minister said Friday in a move that appears to temporarily ease a recent escalation in tensions between the two nations.

"We will have to see how North Korea responds to demands for the truth. Once we have that, we would then consider what sort of sanctions to impose," Junichiro Koizumi (search) said at a joint news conference with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun after a summit between the two leaders.

Tokyo and Seoul have pursued independent contacts with the reclusive communist regime, in addition to participating in three rounds of six-nation talks, involving the United States, China, Russia, the two Koreas, and Japan aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear program. Those strategies haven't led to a major breakthrough.

For two hours Friday at the hot spring resort of Ibusuki in southern Japan, Koizumi and Roh focused on dealing with North Korea.

The summit — their first since a July meeting on South Korea's resort island of Jeju — comes as Koizumi faces intense pressure to impose sanctions on North Korea for failing to fully account for Japanese kidnap victims.

North Korea has admitted to abducting 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s. It has returned five of them but says the other eight have died.

Pyongyang handed over human remains it claims belonged to two victims — only for Japanese forensic tests to show they were someone else's.

Japan's Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said Thursday that economic sanctions are now a "likely option." But he did not specify when or how Japan would apply sanctions.

North Korea warned on Wednesday that it would consider sanctions by Japan "a declaration of war."

Japan's media urged Tokyo and Seoul not to let Pyongyang divide them.

"By sticking to their anti-nuclear stance, Japan and South Korea can drive North Korea to give up its nuclear programs," the national Asahi newspaper said, in an editorial.

In July, on Jeju, Koizumi and Roh put on a rare display of friendliness.

Japan ruled Korea as a colony from 1910 until 1945, and Tokyo-Seoul relations remained bitter for decades. Many South Koreans have been angered by what they perceive as Japan's attempts to whitewash its wartime atrocities in school textbooks and lessons.

Recently, however, freer cultural exchanges, the threat posed by North Korea and China's emergence as a military and economic force in Asia have brought the two closer.

Trade is one area Tokyo and Seoul want to expand, and the two sides have agreed to work out a free-trade deal by 2005.

Japan is now South Korea's third-biggest trading partner, with two-way shipments valued at US$54 billion (euro40.3 billion) in 2003.