The government’s investigation into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s has made some progress, although the findings include shocking details. Credit goes to an 11-member fact-finding mission that returned Tuesday from two days of difficult activities in North Korea.

The abductees’ families, however, are understandably dissatisfied with the findings, which leave many questions unanswered. The government should make every effort to arrange relatives’ visits to North Korea and the early return home of surviving abductees and their families. At the same time, it should continue its investigation in order to find out the whole truth about these state-organized kidnappings. Another fact-finding mission must be sent to North Korea.

According to the mission’s report to relatives, a summary of which was released at a press conference, the group met five survivors who had been named by North Korea at the Sept. 17 summit meeting in Pyongyang between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The report says that, judging from their physical features and other characteristics, “it can be reasonably concluded that they are the same persons” as those identified by North Korea at the summit.

As for eight other abductees listed as dead by North Korea, Pyongyang reiterated essentially what it claimed at the summit: that they died from “illnesses and disasters,” and had not been victims of foul play. This time around, however, it gave more detailed explanations, saying that two of them died from gas poisoning, another two from traffic accidents, and the rest from mental illness (resulting in suicide), a liver ailment, heart disease and drowning.

But little evidence was produced to confirm their deaths. Most of their graves and remains, Pyongyang claimed, had been washed away in massive floods. And no credible explanation was given to back the North Korean claim that they had died relatively young, not long after they were kidnapped.

The government says, with good reason, that it is too early to draw conclusions on their deaths. It should first analyze the results of the mission’s investigation in detail and then make further probes, including DNA testing. Obtaining North Korean cooperation is considered difficult given legal limitations. Police participation in the investigation should be considered.

The abduction issue looms as a major obstacle to the normalization of Japan-North Korea relations. Clearing the hurdle is a top diplomatic priority for Prime Minister Koizumi, who on Monday reshuffled the Cabinet to bolster his leadership. Normalization talks are expected to resume later this month, as agreed at the summit.

The Japanese public is outraged that Pyongyang’s special agents abducted innocent citizens from Japan and elsewhere to serve their covert purposes. Indeed, the reaction has been so strong that had Japan maintained diplomatic relations with North Korea, this issue would likely have led Tokyo to sever ties. But, despite the brutality of the abductions, confronting North Korea is not the answer. To resolve the issue Japan has no choice but to sustain dialogue with and seek cooperation from North Korea. Mr. Koizumi is right to pursue a solution in the course of normalization talks.

The relatives worry, however, that a solution will be postponed if the talks are resumed without a more detailed investigation. They are distrustful of the government, blaming it for leaving the issue on the back burner for years. The feelings of the families must be fully respected in dealing with the problem. If no significant progress is made in this regard during the normalization talks, diplomacy toward North Korea will lose the support of the families as well as the public at large.

Mr. Koizumi’s surprise visit to Pyongyang has received a positive reception both here and abroad; it is seen to have opened a new vista of possibility for achieving stability in Northeast Asia. The trip may have contributed to the U.S. decision to send Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to Pyongyang on Thursday. It can be expected that a further improvement in Japan-North Korea relations will help to improve Pyongyang’s ties with Washington and Seoul as well.

It must not be forgotten, however, that the abduction issue represents a major security concern about North Korea, as does the suspicion that the country may be developing, or planning to develop, weapons of mass destruction. The resolution of this issue, therefore, is an indispensable condition not only for the normalization of Japan-North Korea relations but also for the stabilization of the security situation in Northeast Asia.

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