Abduction issue raised in historic summit but challenges loom for Japan


While many countries hailed a landmark summit between the United States and North Korea in Singapore, Japan also had its own reason for optimism: the fact that the issue of Pyongyang's past abductions of Japanese nationals was brought up at the meeting.

But what happens next is unclear given North Korea's history of flip-flops in a set of abduction-related agreements. Besides, the United States does not show any signs of willingness to broker talks between Japan and North Korea to resolve the issue.

As he promised Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. President Donald Trump told a press conference after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he "absolutely" broached the issue of Pyongyang's abductions of Japanese citizens.

Political experts say U.S. support for the matter comes as a boon for Japan and has set off a flurry of diplomatic activity on the specifics of how to proceed on the abduction issue, which has seen no tangible progress since 2016 despite behind-the-scenes contact between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

"With the ball in Japan's court, Japan will proactively make further efforts" to tackle the abduction issue, Kenji Kanasugi, director general of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau who heads the Japanese liaison team for the summit, told reporters.

Abe, who has made the issue a top priority of his government, has also said he is determined that Japan "directly faces" North Korea to settle the issue, in a clear shift to dialogue.

Speculation is rife that Japan and North Korea could make informal contact in the coming months, including an upcoming international security forum in Mongolia after the Trump-Kim meeting.

But North Korea's past behaviors suggest the path home for the Japanese abductees will not be easy.

Under a 2014 deal struck in Stockholm, Tokyo and Pyongyang agreed on principles for negotiations toward settling the abduction issue, and that the North will reinvestigate the fate of abductees through its own panel.

But Pyongyang continued its nuclear and missile tests even after the deal, prompting sanctions from Japan. In retaliation, the North disbanded the probe body in 2016, effectively stalling the abduction talks.

Experts on Korean affairs also say that now is the time for a rethink of Japan's policy toward North Korea, as Pyongyang apparently warms up to the United States after years of hostility.

"The Japanese government needs to take its own actions on concerns related to the lives and human rights of Japanese people, such as the abduction issue, and not just seek U.S. and South Korea's cooperation," Atsuhito Isozaki, an associate professor of Keio University, said.

Japan has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and maintains there will be no normalization of ties unless the abduction issue is settled.

Japan officially lists 17 citizens as abduction victims in the 1970s and 1980s and suspects North Korea is involved in many more disappearances. Five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002, with Pyongyang maintaining that eight had died and four others never entered the country.

Heading into the summit, there were concerns that diplomacy between North Korea and other countries — namely the United States, China, South Korea and Russia — puts Japan at risk of being left in the cold if it insists on sticking to its existing policy of pressure with North Korea, political pundits say.

Isozaki said Japan "does not have the luxury of time" for North Korea to make the first move to settle the abduction issue, as the North may no longer see economic aid from Japan as appealing as during the time of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The economies of China and South Korea are growing, and there is the matter of how U.S.-North Korea ties will progress, Isozaki added.

Koizumi made history when he visited Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004, during which he held summits with Kim's late father, Kim Jong Il. In his first visit, Kim admitted North Korea had abducted Japanese nationals.

Under the historic 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, Japan and North Korea agreed to make "every possible effort for an early normalization of the relations," and that Japan will extend economic cooperation to the North after they are normalized.

"With the success of the U.S.-North Korea summit, Japan will now have to start moving forward overall relations with North Korea including the abduction issue and eventually normalization of diplomatic ties," Park Jung Jin, an associate professor of international relations at Tsuda University in Tokyo, said.

Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University who has been following Korean Peninsula security issues for over 25 years, said that he finds it "hard to believe that Kim will let Trump engage on this issue in a substantive manner when it is the core of DPRK relations with Japan."

DPRK is the acronym of North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Aging family members of the abductees are also racing against time.

"We have finally come this far. I hope now for a Japan-North Korea summit so that the victims can return home," Sakie Yokota, the 82-year-old mother of Megumi, who was kidnapped at age 13 and now the symbol of the abduction issue, said.


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