Pyongyang has told Tokyo it needs “more time” to finish its investigation into the fates of Japanese nationals in North Korea a year after it launched the probe, Japanese officials said Friday.

The Japanese in question include those abducted by North Korean spies in the 1970s and 1980s.

North Korean officials in September informed Japanese representatives that it would take about a year for the special investigation committee to finish its probe, although the nation did not say where that time frame begins and ends.

Pyongyang launched the team on July 4 last year. Little progress has been reported since then, and Japan has begun to suspect the North of employing its tried and tested diplomatic tactic of prolonging negotiations while trying to extract concessions, typically economic benefits.

“It’s regrettable that no abduction victims have been brought home, one year after the launch of the investigation,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

Suga said Pyongyang told the Japanese Embassy in Beijing that it has been “sincerely conducting a comprehensive investigation into all the Japanese,” but that it still needs more time to finish the probe.

Suga declined to reveal other details of the exchanges with North Korea, saying only that the talks involve “negotiations.”

Separately, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a Diet session Friday that he has ordered his Cabinet to step up efforts to win “concrete actions” from the North. But both Abe and Suga have stopped short of issuing strong condemnations and only said that Tokyo will decide how to act after seeing what it provides.

Speculation is rifle that behind-the-scenes negotiations are underway.

Tokyo officially recognizes that at least 17 Japanese were abducted by the North and that five of them returned to Japan in 2002.

According to media reports, North Korea this spring unofficially presented to Japan a report on the Japanese wives of North Korean citizens and the remains of Japanese who died there. Japan refused to accept the report, saying the priority should be finding the abductees.

In March meanwhile, Japanese police raided the house of Ho Jong Man, head of the pro-Pyongyang group Chongryon, in connection with allegedly illegal imports of matsutake mushrooms from North Korea. In May police arrested three suspects, including Ho’s son, Masamichi Kyo.

Pyongyang condemned Tokyo for its actions, warning that the raid and arrests would have a significant impact on bilateral relations, including the abduction talks.

Japan has imposed various economic sanctions on North Korea, including those based on United Nations resolutions, and now has few effective measures left to pressure Pyongyang into disclosing the whereabouts of the suspected abductees.

This contrasts with the high hopes that had been expressed a year ago by high-ranking officials close to Abe.

At that time, Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing, its strongest diplomatic ally, had deteriorated sharply, and Japanese officials believed that North Korea might be seriously seeking better relations with Japan.

But so far Tokyo has failed to see any progress on the abductions, a leading priority for Abe.

In the 2000s, Abe won strong public support thanks to his tough diplomatic stance on the abductions issue, helping him win his first prime ministership in 2006.

Sakie Yokota, 79, the mother of Megumi Yokota, who is believed to have been kidnapped in 1977 by North Korean agents, urged the government to get tough.

“Every time we thought (talks) would work, (they) are postponed again. This has been repeated,” Yokota said at her apartment in Kawasaki on Friday.

“The government should take a tougher approach,” she said.

Information from Kyodo added

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