North Korea probe on Japan abductees in early stage, says Japan govt

TOKYO (REUTERS) - North Korea has told Japan it can only give a preliminary report on the status of its investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang decades ago and of other missing Japanese, the government spokesman in Tokyo said on Friday.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said resolving the emotive dispute over the abductees is a top priority for his administration. In 2002, North Korea admitted kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies. Five abductees and their families later returned to Japan.

North Korea said the remaining eight were dead and that the issue was closed, but Japan pressed for more information about their fate and others that Tokyo believes were also kidnapped.

Japan's National Police Agency says there are more than 800 missing people who may have been abducted.

Tokyo eased some sanctions on North Korea in July in return for Pyongyang's reopening of the investigation and had said it expected an initial report to come out between late summer and early autumn, prompting speculation that there might be some dramatic progress soon.

However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the timing of even the preliminary report was unclear.

Mr Suga told a news conference that North Korea had informed Japan the investigation was proceeding and hoped to wrap it up within a year, although Pyongyang also said the probe was in its initial stage and any explanation would only be preliminary. "The Japanese side has conveyed firmly to North Korea that there must be a speedy, comprehensive and overall investigation concerning all Japanese citizens beginning with the abductees,"Suga said. He said Japan was seeking a more detailed explanation about the investigation through diplomatic routes.

Tokyo has no formal diplomatic ties with North Korea and the dispute over the abductees has been a major stumbling block. North Korea is also subject to U.N. sanctions over its nuclear weapons tests.

Japan's Kyodo news agency last week quoted Song Il-ho, North Korea's top negotiator in talks with Japan, as voicing hope that Japan would further ease sanctions as the probe advanced.

In July, Japan lifted travel curbs to and from North Korea and ended restrictions on the amount of money that can be sent to the North without notifying Japanese authorities.

It also allowed port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes. Tokyo, however, has a ban in place on exports to and imports from North Korea and on flights to Japan by chartered planes from North Korea.

The government plans to brief relatives of the abductees on the negotiations with North Korea later on Friday.