PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korean and Japanese officials ended two days of talks Wednesday with Japan repeating its request to focus and speed up the investigation over the fates of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and '80s.
The abduction issue has long been a major obstacle in the frosty ties between the two nations, which have no formal diplomatic relations. While the two sides have met in third countries, it's the first time in a decade that they are having official talks in North Korea.
"We emphasized again that the abduction issue should get the highest priority," Junichi Ihara, the foreign ministry official heading the Japanese delegation, told reporters after talks ende. "We strongly requested that the investigation be conducted promptly, and that they inform us of the results as soon as possible."
After years of denial, North Korea acknowledged in an unprecedented 2002 summit between former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese, mainly to train spies in Japanese language and culture. It allowed five of them to return to Japan that year, but said the others had died.
Japan thinks at least some of them may still be alive, and believes hundreds more may also have been abducted.
In what was seen as a significant breakthrough after years of stalemate, North Korea agreed in May to launch a new investigation. In exchange, Japan agreed to ease some unilateral sanctions on North Korea, though it continues to enforce sanctions backed by the United Nations over North Korea's nuclear and long-range missile programs.
Progress in North Korea's re-investigation has been slower than Tokyo had hoped.
Japan's NHK public television said North Korea discussed issues other than the abductions, such as the remains of Japanese from the World War II-era and the survivors who have remained there since.
In September, Ihara and his North Korean counterpart, Song Il Ho, met in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. Japan was hoping then to receive a preliminary report on the investigation, but was told instead that officials should come to Pyongyang to meet the special investigation committee if it wanted specifics.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised not to relent until all of the abductees are returned to Japan or accounted for.
That could prove to be complicated and sensitive since estimates of the number of abductees range from the 17 that the Japanese government officially acknowledges to more than 800 that Japanese police list as cases of missing persons in which abductions by North Korea cannot be ruled out.