At his first meeting with reporters of the new year, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Tuesday brushed off concern that North Korea is planning to cut off talks with Japan.
The prime minister says, on the surface, Pyongyang may be hinting at ending talks concerning the abduction of Japanese citizens. But he adds it is necessary to explore the true intention behind North Korea's rhetoric.
The communist state's official news agency last week said North Korea no longer finds it meaningful to maintain contact with Japan on the issue.
Japan has been pressing Pyongyang about the fate of 10 citizens it believes were kidnapped during the Cold War by North Korean agents.
Pyongyang has admitted kidnapping 13 Japanese to train its spies in Japanese language and culture. It released five of them in 2002, but insists eight others are dead and two never entered the country.
Mr. Koizumi on Tuesday reiterated that he is not considering economic sanctions against North Korea at this point, as some in his own government have suggested. Recent polls show 70 percent of the Japanese public supporting sanctions.
Offering a carrot, Mr. Koizumi says if Pyongyang conducts sincere discussions with Tokyo on the abduction issue, then talks on normalizing relations could proceed.
But Mr. Koizumi warns a number of other issues still need to be resolved with North Korea, especially its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.
Six-nation talks on the nuclear issue, involving both Koreas, China, Japan, the United States and Russia, have stalled since the third round more than six months ago. Pyongyang has so far declined to return to the negotiating table. It accuses Washington of maintaining a hostile policy toward North Korea.