updated 6/13/2008 7:59:04 PM ET 2008-06-13T23:59:04

Japan will drop some of its sanctions against North Korea in exchange for a probe into abductions of Japanese citizens, the two countries said Friday, signaling progress on an emotional dispute that has hindered efforts to get Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.

The deal, reached in two days of talks in Beijing, won a reversal of North Korea's long-standing position that its kidnappings of Japanese during the 1970s and ’80s were already resolved. Tokyo has long demanded a full investigation into what it says are unsolved cases.

“We believe there has been a step forward,” Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said. Still, he cautioned against too much optimism: “This isn't a major step. My understanding is that this is just minor progress.”

Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said the communist regime in Pyongyang also agreed to cooperate in the investigation of the 1970 hijacking of a Japanese jetliner that was flown to North Korea. Four of the hijackers remain in the reclusive nation.

Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura and other officials said Japan would lift some of its sanctions, including a ban on ships and chartered flights between the two countries, and restrictions on North Koreans entering Japan. There was no word on when that would happen.

North Korea to 'reinvestigate'
North Korea’s official news agency, the Korean Central News Agency, released a statement on the deal, saying Pyongyang would “reinvestigate” the abductions, while expressing willingness to cooperate in an investigation into the hijacking of a Japanese plane in 1970.

Tokyo has long demanded more information on the abductions, which is a hot-button issue with the Japanese public.

North Korea admitted in 2002 that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese over the years. It allowed five to return home, saying the other eight were dead, but Japan wants conclusive proof of the deaths and an investigation into other suspected abductions.

Japan has made resolution of the kidnappings a condition for providing North Korea with aid as part of a deal if it gives up its nuclear weapons program. North Korea's refusal to comply so far has slowed progress in six-nation talks on its denuclearization.

Machimura said that had been key in persuading North Korea to budge.

“We believe North Korea made its move because it decided the overall talks wouldn't advance unless Japan-North Korea talks progressed,” he said.

Intertwining issues
The aid issue has become a sticking point in the nuclear talks. A South Korean official said Thursday that Pyongyang was refusing to proceed further with its disarmament unless more countries at the arms talks guaranteed promised energy aid.

North Korea’s offer to Japan could be an attempt to win financial concessions.

Japan imposed tight trade sanctions against the impoverished communist nation in 2006 after North Korea tested ballistic missiles in the waters between the two countries and conducted a test explosion of a nuclear device.

The sanctions have apparently hurt North Korea. One of Tokyo’s key moves was banning port calls by a ferry that ethnic Koreans in Japan used to send hard currency back to their homeland. The same ferry also brought cheap North Korean goods back to Japan for sale.

Many Japanese were reluctant to make too many concessions to North Korea without results on the abductions, recalling the many times in recent years when signs of progress were followed with stonewalling by Pyongyang.

“Unless there is major progress, we should not easily cave in,” said Ichita Yamamoto, a ruling party lawmaker.

In the jet hijacking, nine Japanese leftist radicals commandeered a Japan Airlines flight in 1970 and forced it to fly to Pyongyang. Four of the kidnappers remain in North Korea, and Tokyo has long sought their return to Japan to face justice.

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