• Kyodo

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North Korean officials provided an update Monday on Pyongyang’s investigation, launched nearly three months ago, into the fate of at least 12 and possibly hundreds of Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

They met with Japanese officials in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, after Tokyo complained about the slow pace of the probe by a new North Korean committee, which has a special mandate from the National Defense Commission led by leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea’s first report on the findings of its Special Investigation Committee was expected to be released around the end of summer or the beginning of autumn.

But it informed Japan on Sept. 18 that since the probe into all Japanese residing in the country was still in its “initial stage,” it would be unable to provide a thorough explanation beyond this phase.

Japan requested Monday’s meeting after concluding that North Korea remains either unable or unwilling to provide convincing accounts regarding the dozen on Tokyo’s official list of 17 abduction victims who remain missing after five were repatriated in 2002.

Of the six men and six women still unaccounted for, North Korea claimed prior to launching its reinvestigation that eight of them — including Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old girl who disappeared from the coastal city of Niigata in 1977 while on her way home from school — are dead and the four others never entered its territory.

Junichi Ihara, Japan’s top diplomat in charge of Asian affairs, views the meeting in the Chinese city less as an occasion for negotiations and more as an opportunity to query his North Korean counterpart, Song Il Ho, on the current status of the investigation.

He also wants to secure a promise from North Korea to provide with Japan up-to-date information regarding its missing citizens as early as possible.

After the last official meeting between the diplomats in Beijing on July 1, Japan lifted some unilateral sanctions against North Korea, with which it does not have diplomatic relations, in return for launching the investigation.

Since then, in secret contacts held in Malaysia and China at least three times between August and September, Pyongyang has demanded Tokyo promise to further relax its sanctions as quid pro quo for releasing the first report, according to sources.

Japan’s response, however, has been circumspect in the absence of clear indications that the North Koreans intend to provide any useful information on the whereabouts of the still-missing 12, the sources said.

Besides the 17 on the official list of abduction victims, Japan suspects North Korean agents may have been involved in hundreds of other disappearances.

Since five of the 12 were repatriated to Japan in October 2002, 24 years after they were abducted to North Korea, no tangible progress has been seen on the abduction issue.

While North Korea remains largely isolated from the international community over its persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capability, it has reached out to Japan and the two countries agreed in the same Chinese city in March to resume governmental negotiations.

Under a deal struck in May, North Korea is committed to carrying out a comprehensive survey of all Japanese in the country, including the remains and graves of those who died there before and after the end of World War II, not abducted or otherwise missing Japanese suspected by Japan of being abducted.

The written agreement in Stockholm also says that North Korea will give “a simultaneous survey of all matters raised, not just giving priority to some of them.”

For Japan, however, sincere efforts by North Korea to work toward the full settlement of the abduction issue are prerequisite for advancing the ongoing negotiations.

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