Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may make a rare visit to North Korea, his foreign minister said Tuesday, days after announcing a deal to re-open the probe into Japanese citizens kidnapped by spies in the Cold War years.
Any such visit would be controversial, especially in Seoul and Washington, which have led the charge to further isolate Pyongyang over its ballistic missile and nuclear programmes.
Only Junichiro Koizumi has ever visited the secretive state as a Japanese prime minister, in 2002 and 2004, in a futile effort to normalise bilateral ties.
Tokyo and Pyongyang have no formal diplomatic ties, partially because of what Japan says is the North's unwillingness to come clean over the abductions in the 1970s and 1980s.
But in a breakthrough last week, they said an investigation into the fate of missing Japanese would be re-opened. In exchange, Japan would ease some of the unilateral sanctions it has imposed on the isolated state.
"We must think constantly what would be the most effective response and method in order to bring results," Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told a parliamentary committee.
"In doing so, we will consider (Abe) making a visit to North Korea," he said.
Kishida noted that the government needed to act swiftly as families of kidnap victims are increasingly elderly, but said that nothing had been decided about a possible prime ministerial visit yet.
Prime Minister Abe himself stopped short of confirming if he would visit Pyongyang when the negotiations reach a decisive stage.
"It is premature at the moment to prejudge how the matter will develop hereafter," he told reporters when asked if he had such a visit in mind.
But he said: "We'd like to do our utmost to have the North Korean side deliver on their promise."
Abe's right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, said at the weekend that the government would send officials to North Korea to monitor the probe.
North Korea admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese people as part of a scheme to train its spies in customs and language.
The admission was made when Koizumi travelled to Pyongyang to hold a historic summit with then North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Il in 2002.
Five of them returned home but Pyongyang said without producing credible evidence that eight had died, provoking an uproar in Japan.
There are suspicions in Japan that dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of people were taken.
The abductions issue is a highly emotive one that colours all of Japan's dealings with North Korea.
However, the international community, led by Washington, is primarily focused on ridding the unpredictable regime of its ballistic missiles and its nuclear programme.