Japan was to decide on Thursday on easing some sanctions on North Korea in return for its reopening of a probe into the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by the reclusive state decades ago, as a fresh report emerged that some of them were alive.
The Nikkei business daily said on Thursday that North Korea had handed Japan names of at least 10 of its nationals said to be living in that country, including some of those believed to have been abducted.
Tokyo will analyze the list to see if any names match those of reported abductees, and Pyongyang is expected use the list to confirm their whereabouts, the daily said.
The easing of Japanese sanctions, which look likely to have minimal economic impact, could be a first step toward repairing long-chilled ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang, but it also comes at a time of persistent international concerns about the volatile North's nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea agreed in May to reopen the probe into the status of Japanese abductees. In return, Japan promised to lift travel curbs, restrictions on the amount of money that can be sent or brought to the impoverished North without notifying Japanese authorities, and allow port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes, when the investigation was launched.
Pyongyang, however, has a history of reneging on deals.
It admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens, and five abductees and their families subsequently returned to Japan.
North Korea said the remaining eight were dead and that the issue was closed, but Japan pressed for more information about their fate and others that Tokyo believes were also kidnapped.
In 2008, Pyongyang promised to re-open the probe of Japanese abduction victims, but it never followed through. It also reneged on promises made in multilateral talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program and declared the negotiations had ended.
Japanese diplomats met their North Korean counterparts in Beijing on Tuesday to assess Pyongyang's latest plan and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said a day later that a decision on whether to lift some sanctions would be made on Thursday.
Some cynics have said that North Korea already knows the fate of the missing Japanese and that the promised reinvestigation was largely a diplomatic ploy.
Progress on the emotive issue of the abductees, who were kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s, would be a big political plus for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made resolving the issue a key goal of his career.
The list of Japanese nationals in North Korea, which is in the Korean language, includes names and personal histories, according to Japanese government officials involved in the talks, the Nikkei said.
The Japanese sanctions that could be lifted are separate from those imposed by Japan and other U.N. members under U.N. sanctions that followed Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006. The North is banned from conducting atomic and missile tests, and U.N. member states are barred from weapons trade with Pyongyang and from financial transactions that facilitate them.
"Basically, Japan's planned steps are little more than nominal ... They are not substantive. They are not something that would benefit North Korea greatly," said Hajime Izumi, a professor at the University of Shizuoka. "There is no telling whether they can make substantial progress from here."
Proof that some of the missing Japanese are alive would almost certainly boost Abe's popularity following signs of slippage due to his government's announcement on Tuesday of a historic shift in security policy by ending a ban that has kept the military from fighting overseas since World War Two.
Abe's support slipped 4.3 points to 47.8 percent in a Kyodo news agency survey released on Wednesday, while his disapproval rating stood at 40.6 percent - the highest since he returned to office in December 2012 promising to revive the economy and bolster Japan's security stance.
"The 'revelation' that there are more than 10 survivors is encouraging but the timing seems to divert attention away from Abe's extremely unpopular coup against Japan's postwar pacifist order," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University's Japan campus.