Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The Japanese government is facing growing pressure to impose sanctions against North Korea, a move the isolated Stalinist state said would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
The row -- which threatens to further delay attempts to hold more talks on North Korea's nuclear programs -- centers around Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1970s.
In 2002, Kim Jong-il acknowledged what Japan had long suspected, that North Korean agents had kidnapped Japanese to train spies in Japanese language and culture.
Survivors among the abductees returned to Japan, but others were said to have died.
The episode stirred up considerable public emotion in Japan. Tempers flared again recently after North Korea handed over what it claimed were the ashes of a woman abducted as a 13-year-old in 1977 -- but were found by DNA testing to be those of other people instead.
The incident brought home, once again, "that North Korea is a brutal, rogue state," the Yomiuri Shimbun daily said in editorial this week.
According to an opinion poll published on Tuesday, nearly 75 percent of respondents supported the imposition of sanctions against North Korea if no satisfactory progress was made in resolving the abduction matter.
The same poll also found 71 percent were dissatisfied with their government's handling of the issue.
Leaders of Japan's ruling coalition parties urged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to take firm action against North Korea, including demanding that Kim hand over three people suspected of involvement in the kidnappings.
The largest opposition party also adopted a resolution calling on the government to impose economic sanctions and freeze food aid, and urging the U.N. Security Council to also apply sanctions if North Korea remained uncooperative on the abductions.
Koizumi told reporters the demands for sanctions were natural, but it was not the appropriate time to say what type of pressure Japan was considering applying.
The U.S., Japan's key regional ally, has not said publicly whether it would support a Japanese sanctions move.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage had discussed the matter with Japanese officials on Monday.
"He said that we do not take a position on whether or not Japan should impose sanctions on North Korea," Boucher said.
"He said sanctions can be a powerful tool, and especially the threat of sanctions, and any imposition of sanctions should be carefully planned and deliberately implemented so as to maximize effectiveness and produce desired results."
North Korea reacted by warning that any imposition of sanctions would be met by an "effective physical" response.
"Then the ultra-right forces of Japan will be held entirely responsible for the catastrophic impact it will have on ... relations and the regional situation," the official KCNA news agency quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying.
Pyongyang would also seriously reconsider its participation in six-party talks on its nuclear program, he added.
The U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia have held three rounds of talks aimed at shutting down the weapons programs. A fourth round was scheduled for September but did not take place after North Korea refused to attend.
North Korea also lashed out at the U.S., accusing Washington in a statement of launching a psychological drive to persuade people that the regime in Pyongyang was facing a crisis, when in fact it was "as firm as a rock."
It said North Korea was "compelled to seriously reconsider its participation in the talks with the U.S., a party extremely disgusting and hateful."
The statement made reference to claims that there has been a mass defection of North Korean generals to China.
In recent weeks, reports have emerged suggesting that changes are underway inside the reclusive regime. Close observers said portraits of Kim had been removed from public places and state-run media were using fewer and less adulatory titles for the mercurial dictator.
The foreign ministry spokesman said Tokyo was trying to revive the abduction row as a pretext "to justify Japan's miniaturization" and accused the U.S. of supporting the move in order to provoke a war on the Korean peninsula.
The Japanese cabinet last Friday approved new defense guidelines for the next decade with a greater focus on facing threats posed by terrorists and missiles, and which identified North Korea as a security threat.
The guidelines also confirmed that Japan would collaborate with the U.S. in developing a joint ballistic missile defense system, designed to provide a shield against missile attack from enemies like North Korea.
Two scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies argued in a report published Tuesday that an effective way of handling the North Korean nuclear issue would be to provide the country's impoverished people with humanitarian aid, focusing on medical assistance.
"Addressing urgent humanitarian needs in a hostile country can deny an authoritarian enemy an external threat, rally allies, and open the door to future bargaining," said Patrick Cronin and Mary Liz Mann.
"If the U.S. is seen as focusing exclusively on nuclear weapons, it risks leaving the perception that Americans are indifferent to the welfare of the Korean people," they said.
President Bush last month signed into law the North Korean Human Rights Act, which provides funding to help refugees, seeks to pressurize Pyongyang to improve its human rights record, and authorizes the expansion of radio broadcasting into the cut-off state.
North Korean said the legislation was part of Washington's "wild ambition for regime change."
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