TOKYO North Korea had told Japan it intends to deepen its probe into the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang decades ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday, but there was no indication of any imminent breakthrough.
Abe's administration is under fire for fund-related scandals in his cabinet that have forced two ministers to resign and put others under scrutiny, and any progress in the talks with North Korea would provide a welcome relief.
"North Korea indicated its stance to thoroughly deepen its investigation from a new angle, without sticking to the results of past probes," Abe told journalists outside his official residence after receiving a report from diplomats back from two days of talks in Pyongyang, the first such visit in a decade.
He added that Japan had told North Korea's highest-level officials that resolving the issue was Tokyo's top priority, but gave no further details.
"I am determined to do my utmost to resolve the abductees issue," Abe said in brief, televised remarks.
Pyongyang admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies, and five abductees and their families later returned to Japan.
Japan wants to know about the fate of the remaining eight, who Pyongyang has said have died, and others that Tokyo believes were also kidnapped.
Japan eased some sanctions on North Korea in July in return for the North reopening its probe into the status of the abduction victims and had expected an initial report by now. But Pyongyang said last month there were no details to report and invited Japanese officials to visit for an update.
The abduction issue has long soured relations between the two countries, which have no formal diplomatic ties.
The North, already under U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and rocket programs, had promised to reopen an investigation in 2008, but never followed through. It also reneged on promises made in multilateral talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program, and declared the negotiations had ended.
(reporting by Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Crispian Balmer)