North Korea told Japan last week that it plans to question its agents who abducted Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, according to sources familiar with relations between the two countries.
In past discussions Pyongyang had said most of those responsible for the abductions were dead.
However, the sources said North Korea’s special investigation committee made the promise during talks in Pyongyang on Oct. 28 and 29 with a Japanese delegation headed by Junichi Ihara, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.
The North Korean committee is headed by So Tae Ha, vice minister of state security.
Japan’s government wants a full account of what happened, and word of whether those abducted are still alive. Tokyo officially recognizes 12 abductees as missing, but suspects there could be many more.
Officials do not know how rigorously North Korea will dig into the cases. Some in Tokyo say Pyongyang may use the promised questioning to buy time or to fabricate more excuses for stalling the report’s delivery.
During the talks last week, North Korea did not appear to respond to Japan’s demand that Pyongyang hand over the perpetrators, the sources said.
In previous rounds of investigations, in 2002 and 2004, North Korea indicated that questioning the perpetrators was impossible, saying many had been executed or had died after serving prison sentences.
The sources said Pyongyang’s investigation committee is likely to question North Korean agents Sin Kwang Su and Kim Se Ho, as well as Kimihiro Uomoto, a Japanese citizen who hijacked a Japan Airlines plane and defected to North Korea in 1970, and the Japanese wives of two other hijackers.
In 2006, Japanese authorities identified Sin as the person responsible for the abduction of Yasushi and Fukie Chimura, both of whom returned to Japan in October 2002 along with three other abductees, and Tadaaki Hara, who North Korea claims has since died.
Japanese authorities have also issued an arrest warrant for Kim as the main suspect in the abduction of Yutaka Kume, who North Korea claims never entered the country.
Uomoto and two other Japanese individuals are also wanted for their alleged involvement in the abductions of three Japanese in Europe.
Tokyo has demanded that North Korea extradite all the individuals involved to Japan.
During the talks last week, North Korea’s committee — launched in July this year after Tokyo lifted some unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang — told Japan that it will “deepen” its investigation into the fates of the abduction victims “regardless of the results of past probes.”
The remarks were taken as suggesting that North Korea may drop its long-held insistence that of the 12 officially recognized abductees, eight have died and four others never entered the country.
North Korea conducted probes in the past into Japanese nationals it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, but Japan rejected the results as unconvincing.
Speaking at a news conference on Friday in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he expects North Korea to present by its report on the so-called reinvestigation by the end of the year, following Pyongyang’s failure to meet an earlier agreed time frame.
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