N. Korea asked Japan for food, medical aid in talks in May

During talks last week in Sweden, North Korea asked Japan to provide it with food and medical supplies, and Tokyo agreed as long as the assistance was provided through nongovernmental organizations or private-sector entities, a Japanese government source said Tuesday.

Japan's response was apparently aimed at encouraging North Korea to fulfill its promise to reinvestigate past abductions of Japanese by North Korean agents.

But Tokyo balked at providing government aid due to strong public sentiment against Pyongyang over the abductions of Japanese -- one as young as 13 -- in the 1970s and 80s, the source said.

North Korea said during the negotiations in Stockholm that rice and medicines are needed, but the Japanese government said no humanitarian aid would be offered until tangible progress is achieved in reinvestigating the abductions, according to the source.

Under the Tokyo-Pyongyang accord in Stockholm, the North agreed to thoroughly investigate the fate of 12 Japanese listed by Tokyo as among 17 Japanese abducted.

In 2002, the North admitted to having abducted 13 Japanese, including five who were repatriated to Japan. In 2008, the North promised to reinvestigate the abductions but later reneged on its pledge.

Following the agreement in Sweden, the North said it will create an investigation panel by mid-June. And once it's clear the reinvestigation is underway, Japan intends to ease certain sanctions on the North, including travel restrictions.

That may include Japan lifting its ban on North Korean vessels, including the Mangyongbong-92 passenger-cargo ferry, entering Japanese ports. The source indicated that could pave the way for the arrival of the first North Korean vessel as soon as July.

The Mangyongbong-92 was banned from entering Japan in the wake of Pyongyang's ballistic missile launches and its first nuclear test in 2006.

If a North Korean vessel were allowed to enter a Japanese port, that would mean officials of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, and North Korean goods could enter Japan.

However Japan, which has no diplomatic ties with North Korea, would keep strict import and export regulations in place, and would bolster customs checks to avoid shipments of items intended for purposes other than humanitarian aid, the source said.

Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Akihiro Ota said at a press conference last Friday that Japan will lift its ban on the ship's port entry on humanitarian grounds for shipment of medicines.

Due to lack of progress over the abduction issue, Japan has not provided food aid to North Korea. In 2004, the government shipped some of 250,000 tons of food aid pledged to North Korea, but the shipments were later halted due to a row over the North's handling of the abduction issue.

Any sanctions eased once the North begins to reinvestigate the abductions will not include measures providing substantive economic benefits to North Korea, a Japanese Foreign Ministry source said.