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PYONGYANG, North Korea – The second and final day of talks was underway Wednesday between North Korean and Japanese officials assessing progress into an investigation of 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 strongly requested that the investigation be conducted promptly, and that they inform us of the results as soon as possible," Junichi Ihara, the foreign ministry official heading the Japanese delegation, said after the first day of talks in Pyongyang on Tuesday. "We also emphasized ... that the abduction issue is the most important task for Japan."
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 probe into the abductions. 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.
In September, Ihara and his North Korean counterpart, Song Il Ho, held a meeting 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 a very complicated and sensitive matter 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.