With no progress reported in North Korea’s investigation into the fates of Japanese nationals it abducted decades ago, Tokyo is stepping up calls on Pyongyang to declare its findings “promptly and honestly.”
As of Friday, Japan had yet to receive a report about the 12 Japanese who Tokyo recognizes as abduction victims still missing — one year after Japan and North Korea announced a deal to get Pyongyang to “reinvestigate” what happened in return for the lifting of some unilateral sanctions.
The agreement set a deadline of this summer, although no date was specified.
“We feel strong outrage at the fact that North Korea has not yet presented a report,” Eriko Yamatani, minister for the abduction issue, told reporters Friday.
“We will urge (North Korea) to report its findings promptly and honestly, and ensure the safety and return of all abduction victims.”
In line with the deal struck during talks May 26-28 last year between the two governments in Stockholm, Japan on July 4 lifted some of its unilateral sanctions on North Korea in return for that nation beginning a reinvestigation into the 12 outstanding known abduction victims, as well as a comprehensive probe into all Japanese nationals residing in North Korea.
The comprehensive probe involves the remains of Japanese who died around the end of World War II in what is now North Korea, Japanese nationals who stayed on in Korea after the war, and the Japanese wives of pro-Pyongyang Korean residents of Japan who moved there under a 1959-1984 repatriation project.
The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
The probe also covers missing Japanese who Japan believes may have been abducted by North Korea. There are no firm figures for these, but Tokyo-based civic group the Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea reports that there are around 470 such individuals, whereas the National Police Agency estimates that there are 880.
North Korea indicated on April 2 this year that it may suspend talks after police searched the home of the head of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. Officers have since made three arrests, over alleged illegal trade with North Korea.
Nevertheless, the two countries are apparently continuing behind-the-scenes negotiations, diplomatic sources say.
Experts in Japan-North Korean relations suspect there is a gap between the two sides’ priorities in implementing the Stockholm accord, and this may create difficulty in advancing what seem to be stalled negotiations.
Japan attaches the highest priority to North Korea’s investigation into the fates of the abduction victims.
Pyongyang has maintained that eight have since died and four others never entered the country in the first place.
But the accord demands that North Korea “simultaneously” conduct a comprehensive survey of the other unresolved matters, too.
“I would assume that North Korea would aim to present the results of each category simultaneously,” said Shunji Hiraiwa, a professor of Korean studies at Kwansei Gakuin University. “I don’t think North Korea would show the result of reinvestigation into the abduction victims alone.”
Analysts say if North Korea releases information suggesting that some abduction victims are still alive and living there, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would come under heavy pressure to do something about it. He has vowed to settle the abduction issue while he is in office.
“Under the principle of ‘action by action,’ North Korea would expect Japan to lift more sanctions in return for a report of investigation results,” Hiraiwa said.
“But if Japan were not to take such action because it is unsatisfied with answers on the abduction issue, North Korea might opt to end negotiations — even though, for example, some Japanese spouses are wanting to come home,” he said.
In what may be a warning to North Korea, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party on May 13 set up a project team to study measures to strengthen Japanese sanctions on the country.
The move followed the extension by the government in April of Japan’s trade embargo and other sanctions against North Korea for a period of two years.
Cabinet members declined to say whether the government would reimpose sanctions it lifted last July if North Korea fails to make progress on the abduction issue, which has prevented the two countries from normalizing diplomatic relations.
“We will have to continue studying what will be effective in eliciting positive and concrete responses from North Korea,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told journalists Friday.