June 28, 2007 / 7:23 AM / 12 years ago

North Korea to probe abducted Japanese: source

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea will conduct a thorough investigation into the kidnapping of Japanese citizens, a departure from its stand that the divisive issue has been settled, a source with ties to Pyongyang said on Thursday.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said Tokyo will refuse economic aid to Pyongyang unless it sees progress in a dispute over citizens kidnapped decades ago to help train North Korean spies in language and culture.

“Kim Jong-il has ordered a thorough investigation into the issue ... North Korea intends to resolve this issue,” the source told Reuters, requesting anonymity.

The source has provided reliable information on the secretive state’s policy in the past.

Pyongyang has yet to inform Tokyo of its decision.

North Korea admitted in 2002 that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s. Five returned to Japan in 2002 after then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi twice visited Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Families of the five have also been allowed to go to Japan. “This is evidence of Kim Jong-il’s sincerity,” the source said.

Pyongyang has said the eight others were dead and insisted that the abductee issue was settled.

However, Tokyo wants more information about the fate of the eight and word on another four who it says were also kidnapped. It insists bilateral relations cannot be normalized until the issue, emotive for many Japanese, is resolved.

‘PRODUCE EVIDENCE’

The source said Kim told those involved in the kidnappings “not to sabotage investigations or cover (things) up”.

“Evidence must be produced to prove deaths. DNA tests must be conducted,” the source said. “Their families must be allowed to come out and say what the situation is.

“If they are still alive and do not want to return to Japan, they should come out and say so,” the source said. “But there is truly no record of some of them entering North Korea.”

The North Korean embassy in Beijing declined to comment.

Asked to comment, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said he did not have sufficient information to comment on the report.

“We think it is important that North Korea makes progress on the resolution of the abduction issue,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Abe has repeatedly stated Japan does not want Washington to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism until the abductions dispute is resolved.

On Monday, Abe once again emphasized the abduction issue when asked by reporters about North Korea’s statement that it would start implementing a February nuclear disarmament deal.

North Korea agreed at six-country talks in February to mothball its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in exchange for fuel oil and other benefits, including steps to lift trade sanctions and remove it from the U.S. terrorism list.

In a twist on Tuesday, a woman who had left North Korea for Japan in 2003 turned around and claimed she was kidnapped.

Japan denied the woman, To Chu-ji, had been abducted. To told a news conference in Beijing she missed her children.

To was born in Japan in 1949 and returned to North Korea in 1960 with her North Korean father and Japanese mother. She left Japan on June 21 and returned to Pyongyang via Beijing.

Additional reporting by Elaine Lies in Tokyo

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