A government delegation will make a four-day visit to North Korea from Monday to assess Pyongyang’s investigation of the fate of Japanese nationals abducted decades ago.
In talks with North Korea’s special investigatory committee Tuesday and Wednesday in Pyongyang, the delegation hopes to obtain information on 12 Japanese officially recognized by Tokyo as abductees and who remain unaccounted for. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called the abduction issue his government’s “highest priority.”
The abduction issue has prevented the two countries from normalizing diplomatic relations, and this will be the first Japanese government mission to North Korea since November 2004.
Still, it remains to be seen if Pyongyang will provide additional information on the 12 abductees, having maintained for years that eight of them died and the other four never entered the country.
Instead, the North may present information on other missing Japanese and demand economic concessions for progress in the investigation. Pyongyang launched the probe, which covers all Japanese residing in the country, in July, in exchange for the lifting of some of Tokyo’s unilateral sanctions.
The government delegation to the North consists of officials from the Foreign Ministry, National Police Agency, Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and an agency handling the abduction issue under the Cabinet Secretariat.
The trip comes after Song Il Ho, North Korea’s ambassador for negotiations on normalizing diplomatic relations with Japan, suggested late last month that Japanese officials would visit Pyongyang to directly question members of the special investigatory committee, to better understand what progress it has made.
The North was scheduled to release its first report on progress made sometime between late summer and early fall, but Tokyo’s hopes of a quick resolution were dashed when the North last month claimed it was only able to provide initial findings, as the probe remained in its infancy.
Relatives of the abductees have expressed skepticism about the government’s mission to the North, saying it will only be worthwhile if concrete information is obtained.
In an attempt to advance the investigation, Tokyo is requesting talks between the delegation, led by Junichi Ihara, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and So Tae Ha, chairman of the special investigation committee and vice minister of state security.
The probe opened in July by the committee covers official abductees whose fates are unknown; Japanese listed as missing but not formally recognized as abductees; the remains of Japanese who died around the end of World War II in what is now North Korea; Japanese nationals who remained in the North after the war; and Japanese wives of pro-Pyongyang Korean residents of Japan who moved to North Korea under a 1959-1984 repatriation agreement.
The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
Pyongyang has conducted probes into Japanese abductee victims in the past, but Tokyo has not accepted those results, calling them unconvincing. Abe has urged the North to conduct an “honest and sincere” investigation into abductees this time around.
North Korea says the committee, staffed by about 30 officials, has been given a special mandate by the National Defense Commission, the top state organ under leader Kim Jong Un, to investigate all institutions and mobilize relevant agencies and people concerned.
Japan officially lists 17 nationals as having been abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, but suspects Pyongyang’s involvement in hundreds of other disappearances. Five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002 after a historic visit to the North by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.