PYONGYANG – North Korea has nearly completed a fresh investigation it promised Japan last year into the fates of Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by the country decades ago, according to a senior North Korean diplomat.
“What is obvious is that (North Korea) has conducted the investigation in good faith,” Song Il Ho, North Korea’s top negotiator in talks with Japan, said in an interview Wednesday. “If we decide to do so, we can unilaterally announce the results of the probe as early as tomorrow.”
Nevertheless, Song said North Korea has yet to “officially” convey to Japan through diplomatic channels its readiness to deliver the results of the probe.
He said one of the biggest obstacles to doing so is that the Japanese government has not created a unified body that can serve as a counterpart to North Korea’s special team in charge of the investigation, despite repeated requests.
Before announcing the results, Song, who has been serving in his current post since 2006, said in Pyongyang that his country wants to confidentially share information and make consultations with the Japanese government.
“It is preferable that the two countries make a joint announcement,” he said. “I think we need diplomatic adjustment.”
To this end, the 60-year-old ambassador for negotiations to normalize relations with Japan suggested the need for holding a formal meeting between senior officials of the two countries in the coming months.
Since last October, there has been no official meeting between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
Asked if the prepared report is an interim or a final version, he said it is a “comprehensive one.”
Japan and North Korea, which have never had diplomatic relations, resumed official talks in March 2014 in an attempt to settle major outstanding issues.
In July that year, Japan lifted some of its unilateral sanctions against North Korea, including restrictions on travel and remittances, in return for the launch of the new investigation.
North Korea had originally indicated that it would complete the investigation within a year or so, but in July this year said it needed more time, according to the Japanese government.
For Japan, finding out what happened to those believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s is an issue of the highest priority.
North Korea pledged to conduct a comprehensive survey of all Japanese in the country, including the abductees, with the new team given a special mandate from the National Defense Commission led by leader Kim Jong Un.
Japan officially lists 17 nationals as having been abducted by North Korea but suspects its agents were involved in many more disappearances. Five abductees were repatriated in 2002.
Of the 12 still missing, until the start of the new investigation North Korea had insisted that eight are dead and four others never entered its territory. The most high-profile of the eight is Megumi Yokota, who was 13 when she disappeared from a Japanese coastal city in 1977 while on her way home from school.
Securing the return of all abductees from North Korea is one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most cherished political goals.
Still, Abe’s government has been struggling to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in the search for the victims, while their aging parents are increasingly venting frustration over the stalemate in the negotiations.