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New Japanese Law Pressures N. Korea to Give Up Nuclear Program - 2004-01-29

Japan's lower house of parliament has passed a bill making it easier for the country to impose sanctions on North Korea. The legislation is seen as a tool to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Japanese lawmakers in the powerful lower house of parliament Thursday approved legislation to enable the government to slap sanctions on communist North Korea. The bill does not name North Korea, but legislators confirm that it is aimed at that nation.

Until this bill, Japan legally could only use sanctions as part of an international or United Nations effort.

The bill, drafted by the ruling and opposition parties, is expected to pass the upper house and be enacted as early as next week.

Once law, it would allow Japan to suspend trade and remittances to North Korea. Japanese experts believe the remittances from pro-Pyongyang North Koreans living in Japan are a major source of hard currency for the impoverished state.

The measure comes amid increasing international frustration over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, which violate international agreements.

Japan, along with the United States, China, South Korea and Russia, have been trying for five months to convince Pyongyang to return to the bargaining table for another round of talks on ending the 16-month nuclear standoff.

Japan, in easy range of North Korean missiles, is deeply concerned.

Another major concern for Japan is the stalemate over the reunion of Japanese abductees and their family members. Five surviving abduction victims, who were kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s for spying purposes are now back in Japan. But their children and in one case a spouse, remain in North Korea and Pyongyang refuses to let them go. Japan also wants Pyongyang to provide more information on other alleged Japanese kidnapping victims. The ongoing dispute and lack of progress has angered the Japanese public.

Japanese government spokeswoman, Kyoko Nakayama, says the ability to impose sanctions could strengthen Japan's negotiating stance on these issues. But she says the government hopes to resolve the nuclear and abduction issues without using economic sanctions and wants to see a better bilateral relationship.

Pyongyang has said the legislation could increase regional friction and warned against imposing sanctions. Before Thursday's vote, the official Korean Central News Agency called the bill a "disturbing development" that could place a "stumbling block" in the way of peacefully resolving the nuclear issue. It also warned that Pyongyang would react to any sanctions by taking what it called "the toughest stand."