TOKYO, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- The first Japanese delegation to visit North Korea since 2004 arrived in Pyongyang Monday to discuss the fates of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea during the Cold War.
The delegation hopes to encourage the North Korean committee conducting the investigation on the abductions to keep its promise to provide information on the probe.
The two countries have not historically had formal diplomatic relations. The visit is the first official trip of its kind since then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made the journey to Pyongyang in 2004, an appearance that resulted in the North admitting to the abduction of 13 Japanese families.
The families were kidnapped in order to train Korean spies in Japanese language and culture during the Cold War. Five of those families were released -- North Korea claimed the others had since died.
Japan officially recognizes 17 victims of abduction and has been advocating for an investigation into 12 more cases, though Japanese polices say there are more than 800 missing-person cases in which North Korea could potentially be involved. The UN released a report in February which estimated tens of thousands of foreign nationals from at least a dozen countries had been abducted.
Last summer, North Korea pledged to investigate the abductions and provide information to Japanese nationals held hostage in exchange for Japan easing unilateral sanctions -- a huge step in improving relations between the nations -- but the promised probe wasn't forthcoming enough for the Japanese, who've voiced disappointment with the delay. In response, North Korea invited Japanese officials to Pyongyang to question the committee investigating the kidnappings directly.
Junichi Ihara, Japan's top diplomat for Asian affairs, is heading the delegation of police and other experts, which arrived Monday afternoon.
"We would like an explanation of the probe from those actually involved, and strongly urge them to move ahead swiftly with the investigation and come through with an answer," Yoshihide Suga, a spokesman for the Japanese government told reporters Monday. "We want them to explain the status of the investigation . . . We plan to use this visit to Pyongyang to tell the person in charge that Japan regards the abduction issue as a priority," he added.
The visit comes amid escalating international concern over North Korea's nuclear arms capabilities.
Friday, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula, told reporters the country now has the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead by means of a long-range ballistic missile.