PYONGYANG – Japan’s delegation in North Korea demanded Tuesday that officials there put the highest priority on finding out what happened to the 12 Japanese nationals who Tokyo believes were abducted and may still be alive.
The abductees are the “most important” issue in what North Korea bills as a comprehensive investigation into all Japanese individuals residing there, lead delegate Junichi Ihara told his North Korean hosts at the outset of two days of talks in Pyongyang.
The North Korean side is headed by So Tae Ha, chairman of the special investigation committee.
As the talks began, journalists could follow some of the conversation. So, wearing a military uniform, said the visit is the “right choice by the Japanese government to show its will to implement an accord the two countries struck in Stockholm” in May.
So is vice minister of state security and counselor for security at the National Defense Commission, the top state organ, headed by leader Kim Jong Un.
Ihara is director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry.
It is the first time that Japanese government officials have held formal talks with the Ministry of State Security, a North Korean secret police organ that they believe possesses information on the abductees.
The so-called reinvestigation is being closely watched in Japan, where the abductee issue remains sorely felt.
Tokyo hopes its contact with So will prompt Kim to resolve the matter urgently and remove an obstacle to the two nations normalizing diplomatic relations.
Speaking in Tokyo, Chief Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Ihara will try to extract as much information as possible on the investigation, adding that he will demand swift progress and for North Korea to “respond in good faith.”
Under the May accord, North Korea agreed to conduct a comprehensive survey of all Japanese in the country, including those it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, in return for the lifting of some of Japan’s unilateral sanctions. Tokyo did so on July 4.
The abductions are thought to have been part of North Korea’s efforts to recruit teachers for its spy training program.
To ensure the probe’s objectivity and transparency, the two countries agreed that Japanese officials would be allowed to visit North Korea at an approved time.
In Monday’s talks, the North Korean delegation included the committee’s two vice chairmen: Kim Myong Chol, counselor of the Ministry of State Security, and Pak Yong Sik, department director of the Ministry of People’s Security, a police organ.
The talks also involve the chiefs of the committee’s four panels. These cover the abductees, missing individuals, the remains of wartime victims, and Japanese nationals who stayed on in Korea after World War II and the Japanese wives of ethnic Koreans who moved to North Korea under a 1959-1984 repatriation project.
The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
The Japanese delegation comprises 12 officials from the Foreign Ministry, the National Police Agency, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, and the Headquarters for the Abduction Issue at the Cabinet Secretariat.
The visit comes after Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for negotiations to normalize relations with Japan, suggested in late September that Japanese officials visit Pyongyang and question the investigation committee directly.
North Korea was due to release its first report on the new investigation sometime around late summer. But it said last month the probe is still at an early stage, rendering it able only to provide initial findings — far short of the Japanese government’s expectations.
North Korea has conducted previous investigations into its abductions, but Japan rejected the results as unconvincing.
Japan officially lists 17 nationals as abductees but suspects North Korea’s involvement in many more disappearances. While five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002, Pyongyang has maintained that eight have died and four others never entered the country.