TOKYO — Japan's prime minister turned up the pressure on North Korea on Saturday to answer questions over the fate of possibly hundreds of Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by the North's agents in the 1970s and '80s.
Shinzo Abe told a rally in Tokyo that he will not back down until every abductee is accounted for. Suggesting he believes some are still alive, he said he will not relent until they are allowed to come back to Japan.
Abe's remarks came as North Korea is preparing to announce the results of a new investigation into the matter following an agreement in May.
Japan officially recognizes 17 cases, but an independent investigative commission and police suggest the number could be as high as 869.
"Resolving the abductions issue is the top priority of my administration," the prime minister told the crowd. "My mission will not be over until the day all of the abduction victims have been returned to their families."
North Korea is expected to announce the preliminary results of its new investigation soon, possibly by the end of this month, and some city and town officials in Japan have already begun making preparations to welcome survivors home. But it is by no means clear that the North will come up with the results Tokyo wants, which could lead to even deeper acrimony.
The abductions, along with the North's nuclear weapons and long-range missile development, have long been a major source of tensions between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations and regularly trade hostile rhetoric.
In 2002, North Korea acknowledged 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.
Tokyo accused Pyongyang of falsifying its claims about the deaths, and then reneged on its promise to send the five back, angering the North. After several years of fits and starts, North Korea agreed to reinvestigate in 2008. But it abandoned that promise as Japan tightened its sanctions over the North's missile and nuclear tests.
The two countries finally began to make progress again after talks in Stockholm in May, when Pyongyang agreed to set up a special committee to reinvestigate. In return, Tokyo agreed to lift some unilateral sanctions on travel and money remittances and allow some other limited exchanges.
Japan continues to impose broader restrictions in line with U.N.-backed sanctions on the North over its nuclear weapons program.
Abe said the sanctions have become a powerful tool of persuasion with Pyongyang and are intended to show the North that unless it complies with international expectations "it has no future."
"There is a problem that North Korea doesn't tell the truth, and or carry out its promises," Abe said. "In the past, we didn't have many ways of dealing with that."
Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/EricTalmadge