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    Japanese Parliament Paves Way for Sanctions Against North Korea

    Japan's parliament has passed a law that would impose sanctions on North Korea if the country's human rights situation does not improve. The action came as Japan warned North Korea that any test of a long-range ballistic missile would violate an agreement Pyonygang signed with Tokyo four years ago.

    The sanctions law is the third in a series of measures aimed at pressuring North Korea on the issue of Japanese abducted by Pyongyang's agents in the 1970's and 80's.

    The legislation, enacted Friday, requires Japan to impose economic sanctions on North Korea if there is no improvement in the human rights situation in the totalitarian country.

    Passage of the bill came amid fresh speculation that North Korea was making final preparations to test fire a Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile.

    Japan's top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, told reporters Friday any such launch would violate an agreement signed by Pyongyang and Tokyo in 2002.

    Abe says a ballistic missile launch would directly affect Japan's national security, and that would be a violation of a declaration signed by the two countries four years ago.

    In that declaration, which came during a summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang promised to continue a moratorium on missile launches.

    Japan had reacted with alarm in August 1998 when North Korea test fired a medium-range missile, part of which flew over the Japanese mainland.

    Some veteran North Korea watchers, such as T.W. Kang of Global Synergy Associates, do not believe Pyongyang will actually go through with a launch, because of the international condemnation it would bring.

    "It's very difficult for North Korea to do something really stupid because the cost to them would be way too high. I don't subscribe to the view that the North Korean regime is totally irrational. So, I think in that sense, I'm optimistic that they will not do something really, truly extreme," said T.W. Kang.

    The abduction issue is separate from concerns about Pyongyang's missile program, but it is a highly emotional one in Japan.

    North Korea in 2002 admitted abducting 13 Japanese during the Cold War, to use them to school North Korean agents in Japanese language and culture.

    After the summit with Mr. Koizumi, Kim Jong Il allowed five of the abductees and members of their families to return to Japan. North Korea says the other eight have died - but Japan refuses to accept that explanation, and the Japanese contend that at least three - and perhaps hundreds - of other Japanese were abducted by North Korea.

    Mr. Koizumi's government has been under increasing pressure from the public to impose economic sanctions on North Korea if it doesn't provide full details about the abductees. Pyongyang has previously said it would consider any imposition of sanctions tantamount to a declaration of war.


    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

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