Japan and North Korea were in secret contact earlier this month in Beijing regarding the first report by Pyongyang on its new round of investigations into abductions of Japanese nationals, sources familiar with bilateral relations said Thursday.
The two sides failed however to reach agreement over North Korea’s repeated call for further easing of Japan’s sanctions in return for the first report, making it certain that the report won’t be submitted by the second week of September, as Tokyo had expected.
The sources said the North Korean participant in the secret discussions was a senior official from the Ministry of State Security, North Korea’s secret police organ directly linked to leader Kim Jong Un.
The Japanese participant was reportedly Junichi Ihara, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.
He expressed reluctance on accepting the North’s demand on sanctions, saying Tokyo won’t reward Pyongyang without progress in the abduction issue, according to the sources.
Ihara was in Beijing on Saturday and Sunday, they said. Keiichi Ono, director of the Northeast Asia Division of the Foreign Ministry, is believed to have accompanied him.
During the meeting, North Korea proposed making the first report to Japan in Pyongyang, according to the sources.
North Korea apparently did not offer new information about 12 people who are officially recognized by the Japanese government as abduction victims and who have not yet returned to Japan.
On Tuesday, Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for negotiations to normalize relations with Japan, said in Pyongyang that his country is ready at any time to provide Japan with its initial findings from the new investigation into abductees and other missing Japanese suspected of being kidnapped by the North.
Japan is determined to ensure that North Korea presents new and credible information in the report as a prerequisite to resolving the abduction issue, the sources said, adding that Tokyo is considering further contact between Ihara and North Korea in an effort to set the timing for the report.
If the two sides remain at odds in the behind-the-scene negotiations, the report could be delayed until late September or October because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to visit the United States for the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly in late September, the sources said.
The latest contact followed a similar meeting between Ihara and a senior official of the Ministry of State Security around Aug. 21 in Kuala Lumpur.
On July 4, Japan lifted some of its unilateral sanctions on North Korea in return for the launch of the reinvestigation.
North Korea has conducted investigations into the abductions in the past, but Japan dismissed 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 claims eight have died and four others never entered the country.
The Japanese victims were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly for the purpose of training spies in Japanese language and culture.